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COBOL turns 60, and still kicking

COBOL is 60 years old this month, and is still going strong in a surprising range of organizations.

COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) was developed based on the work of a committee made up of computer users and manufacturers who formed the Short Range Committee of the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) with the aim of developing a universal language that would replace the vendor-specific examples such as UNIVAC FLOW-MATIC (the brainchild of pioneer Grace Hopper), or IBM Commercial Translator.

COBOL commands were written to look like English, even for assignments, so you’d write commands such as:

Move Income To Total Subtract Expenses

It was aimed at business use, and the handling of record-based information, but according to Grace Hopper in a lecture in 1981, from the beginning there were rumors that COBOL was dying. She said that one of the people working with her on COBOL went as far as commissioning a granite tombstone with the name ‘COBOL’ inscribed on it, and had sent it to Charles A. Phillips, Director of the Data System Research Staff at the Pentagon. 

It was aimed at business use, and the handling of record-based information, but according to Grace Hopper in a lecture in 1981, from the beginning there were rumors that COBOL was dying. She said that one of the people working with her on COBOL went as far as commissioning a granite tombstone with the name ‘COBOL’ inscribed on it, and had sent it to Charles A. Phillips, Director of the Data System Research Staff at the Pentagon. 

This anecdote was confirmed on COBOL’s 25th anniversary when Howard Bromberg confirmed he was the perpetrator of the prank and the tombstone remains in the Computer History Museum.

Despite this early gloom, COBOL is still going strong. The list of organizations still using COBOL is impressive; as late as 2016 the Department of Homeland Security, and the Social Security Administration were both sitll using COBOL, along with 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Most ATMs still run on COBOL or its CICs derivative.

Micro Focus, who produce one of the main current versions of COBOL, says that the language is still being used in 70 percent of global transaction processing systems. The company estimates that 220 billion lines of COBOL are in use today, with an additional 5 billion lines in new code added each year.

Derek Britton, Micro Focus’ global director of product marketing, application modernization, and connectivity, said:

“Any time you phone a call center, transfer money, check your account, or when you contact a government department, or ship a parcel, you are interacting with COBOL.”

Few COBOL systems face the modern world directly; they have modern interfaces that collect the data and present that data in the format the underlying COBOL program requires. In many cases, it would be just too expensive and problematic to redevelop the COBOL in a more modern language, and wouldn’t necessarily provide any business benefit to the organization.

My first real job as a programmer was writing COBOL for an IBM 360, and even back in those dim mists of time people were forecasting the imminent death of COBOL in favor of more flexible languages. It’s good to see it’s still clinging on. 

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