C variants rule programming language roost

C languages occupy four of the five top spots on the monthly Tiobe index

Information technology may thrive on the new, but it is heavily supported by a programming language more than 40 years old.

In the most recent compilation of the Tiobe Index of the world's most popular programming languages, four out of the top five positions are occupied by the C programming language and variants of C.

Tiobe's index, compiled each month, estimates the popularity of programming languages by the number of mentions they generate on the Internet. While only a rough approximation of the actual use of a language, Tiobe's index nonetheless can identify large-scale trends in programming language usage.

For January 2013, C and other programming languages based on C accounted for more than 43 percent of all Web mentions of programming languages, per Tiobe's index.

At Tiobe's top spot is the C language itself, accounting for just over 17.8 percent of the programming language references on the Web. After a decade of waxing and waning in popularity, the language supplanted Java last year as the world's most widely cited programming language.

Java closely followed C, with a 17.4 percent share. Following Java is Objective-C, climbing two positions to the number-three ranking from this month a year ago, thanks almost exclusively to the continued success of Apple. Objective-C is Apple's preferred language for creating applications for its iOS and OS X operating systems.

Also in the top 5 were C++ -- an object-oriented update to C that, according to Tiobe, has seen a renaissance of late thanks to Microsoft -- and Microsoft's own C#, also object oriented. C# is the only C variant in the top five that has slipped in popularity from a year ago, a decline Tiobe attributes to Microsoft's current weakness in the mobile market.

Dennis Ritchie at AT&T Bell Labs first developed C as a general-purpose procedural programming language between 1969 and 1973. The language provides low-level access to hardware memory through pointers, a feature useful for writing fast programs even if pointers themselves can be difficult to implement for many new programmers. Java, in part, was developed to automate many of the low-level programming chores -- such as reclaiming memory no longer being used -- that languages like C required.

"C is little more than a machine independent assembler with few modern features. If it appeals at all then it has to be because it is a simple, clean and elegant language," wrote programmer Mike James, in an analysis of the new list.

C's success is not uncontested. Another ranking, the Popularity of Programming Language (PYPL) index, recently found that Java remains the most popular programming language, capturing 30.5 percent of the market, compared to a rather paltry 9.2 percent for C. PYPL is based on the number of Web searches for programming language tutorials.

Tiobe cautions that its index is not an indicator of the most lines of code written or the comparative quality of a programming language. Indeed, as an observer on the Slashdot news aggregation service pointed out, the number of complaints about C indexed by search engines far exceed those for other popular languages.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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