Is Java the next COBOL?

60 years later, billions of lines of COBOL live on. Could Java, SQL, or Python last as long?

Is Java the next COBOL?
Waleed Hammoudeh / Getty Images

In our mania for the new, it’s convenient to forget just how long the “old” stays with us. Take COBOL, for example. The venerable programming language turns 60 this month and, as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has written, could well “outlive us all.”

Indeed, COBOL offers a great example of the true pace of progress within our industry, while perhaps also offering some clues as to what tomorrow’s COBOLs will be. Java and SQL, anyone? Or perhaps Python?

COBOL the workhorse

Most people reading this post weren’t born in 1959, the year Mary Hawes came up with the idea for COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), which Grace Hopper (and others) went on to formalize and promote. Hawes’ goal, as Vaughan-Nichols reminds us, was to create “an English-like vocabulary that could be used across different computers to perform basic business tasks,” a true vendor-neutral language.

While COBOL’s heyday petered out in the 1980s, it continues to power 70 percent of global transaction processing systems, according to Micro Focus (the company that maintains COBOL), in an interview with Vaughan-Nichols. Pulled money from an ATM? You were using COBOL. Paid a mortgage? COBOL. Called a call center? Yep, that was COBOL, too. Even booking your vacation almost certainly relies on COBOL.