COBOL, C, C++ all due for updates in early 2020s

The stalwart programming languages that run the world's most-used systems are due for new revisions of their international standards.

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You have never heard of Chris Tandy, a Toronto-based programmer for IBM since 1985, but his work in standardizing computer programming languages is vital to everything you do as a software developer.

Tandy chairs the American INCITS PL22 group and is an officer in the global ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 22 committee, which are the primary standards bodies responsible not only for pivotal languages such as COBOL, C, and C++, but also for historic ones like Ada, APL (famously named as "A Programming Language"), and Fortran. They also deal in esoterica—try your hand at coding in PL/1 or REXX.

Future versions of the COBOL standard are now entirely in ISO hands, while before it was mostly an American project, Tandy explained. The ISO working group members intend to have the next version, known as an FDIS (final draft international standard), done in 2020.

Improvements will likely include minimizing dialectic differences between the IBM, MicroFocus, and open-source GNU versions; adding JSON and XML support; adding new data types for date/time stamps; and adding/updating a variety of features such as trim/convert string functions, commitment rollback, infinite loop capability, user-defined editing, and expanded Unicode support, Tandy added.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

C and C++ updates are also active, considering their huge user bases. These are the second and third-most popular languages right now, according to the latest TIOBE report. C18 is the current version of the former, with hundreds of changes and additions planned for its next release no sooner than 2022. However, in the C++ community, the language's inventor warned against feature-creep (PDF) in an open letter last year. COBOL committee members are good at transparency by posting their feature lists and timelines in public; the C and C++ committees generally don't do that, although given their much larger user bases, the future plans inevitably become public ahead of time.

And, for readers of a certain age: "I think we might be related," Tandy joked, when asked about Charles Tandy, who acquired Radio Shack in 1963 and put his own name on that company's line of TRS-80 home computers in the 1970s-1980s.

Whether IBM's Tandy entered the computer field by coincidence or familial destiny, he's happy to continue working on behalf of Big Blue and programmers everywhere. Standards may feel immaterial in the day-to-day life of a software developer, but people shouldn't take for granted the benefits of having the same look-and-feel (and syntax) when programming the same language on different machines. And just like a commercial application or a new SUV, software development projects may be held up if there is a new standard for their language coming soon, so as not to have the result be obsolete from its first day.

"What you don't want to hear," Tandy noted, "is there is no more work on your language."

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By Evan Koblentz

Evan became a technology reporter during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers" in 2015 and is executive director of Vintage Computer Federation, a 501(c)3 non-p...