Still Alive: COBOL turns 60 years old this month

Depending on your point of view, COmmon Business Oriented Language, or COBOL for short, is either a dinosaur of computing or the backbone of modern business.

It’s both.  Despite advances in other languages in terms of speed, power and functionality, COBOL continues to be used throughout the business world for accounting, banking, and many other systems.  And it will continue to be used for the foreseeable future simply because of the cost of redesign and testing.

COBOL turns 60: Why it will outlive us all

[T]here needed to be an easier language for programming those hulking early mainframes. That language, named in September 1959, became Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL).

The credit for coming up with the basic idea goes not to Grace Hopper, although she contributed to the language and promoted it, but to Mary Hawes. She was a Burroughs Corporation programmer who saw a need for a computer language. In March 1959, Hawes proposed that a new computer language be created. It would have an English-like vocabulary that could be used across different computers to perform basic business tasks.


Business IT experts agreed, and in May 1959, 41 computer users and manufacturers met at the Pentagon. There, they formed the Short Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL).


By that September, COBOL’s basic syntax was nailed down, and COBOL programs were running by the summer of 1960. In December 1960, COBOL programs proved to be truly interoperable by running on computers from two different vendors. COBOL was on its way to becoming the first truly commercial programming language.

COBOL compilers (COBOL 85 and 2014 compliant) are still available and in development, with free versions such as GnuCOBOL, COBOL for GCC, and commercial compilers like NetCOBOL and COBOL-IT, and IBM’s COBOL for AIX.  You can also find tutorials on sites such as Tutorial Ride, Tutorials Point, Mainframes Tech Help, and others.

Businesses still need COBOL programmers, but the average age is a decade higher than your typical C++ programmer, some still in demand even into their 70s.  If you want to set yourself apart (or cripple your career, depending on your point of view) it might be worth learning and mastering COBOL.  It’s not just a mainframe language, it’s a cloud language.

COBOL still not dead yet, taking on the cloud

Common wisdom says that COBOL should have died years ago, but the language that sits at the heart of financial systems is still around, and making moves into the cloud.

“It’s almost impossible for most people, in our day-to-day lives, to avoid a COBOL application,” says Stuart McGill, chief technology officer and general manager of Borland for Micro Focus. “COBOL applications tend to be the ones we can’t really do without.”

Approaching 30 years with the company, it’s fair to say that McGill is familiar with the ins and outs of one of the oldest programming languages around — a language that still sits at the core of the financial world.

“Normally most transactions that we go through everyday would be supported by COBOL applications, still are, have been for 30-40 years, probably still will be for 10 to 20 at least,” McGill says.

My college had VAX 11/780 and 4500 computers, and COBOL was one of the languages we learnt. Even in 1990 it was archaic, but we also knew that millions of lines of COBOL already existed. Businesses weren’t about to throw away something that still worked and would be cost prohibitive to replace.

Besides, it was fun.


  1. says

    While IBM does have COBOL for AIX, I have seen much more usage of the COBOL compilers on IBM i (aka AS/400, iSeries). COBOL is the second most commonly used language on IBM i, after RPG. I would also expect that the COBOL compiler for IBM’s z/OS is also more widely used than the AIX version.

  2. jsheinz1234 says

    Great Article! Micro Focus does a great job of keeping the fire going for COBOL and has some great resources.
    Including encouraging academic programs
    Modernizing tools to help programmers work in Visual Studio or Eclipse
    Even moving COBOL to the cloud

    Check out the joint webinar hosted by IBM