The relevance of COBOL as a programming language
COBOL was something of a specification before fully developing into a full blown programming language. Grace Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC was the precursor to COBOL, as well as one of its principal inspirations. The specification was designed by a committee of qualified research personalities who had converged from the private industrial sector, eminent universities and government agencies, in the later half of 1959. Even though the committee considered a number of other contemporary languages like the COMTRAN and the FACT language specification, it was FLOW-MATIC that contributed most to the development of COBOL. The acronym COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language, and it continues to be one of the primary players when it comes to business, finance and administrative systems. Even after weathering through half a decade, COBOL still remains one of the most preferred programming languages in the business scenario.
Traditionally, COBOL was simple as a language, with a restricted scope when it came to functions, without the use of pointers or user defining capabilities. The coding style was straightforward and relatively simple, which made it extremely popular in the field of business computing – where complex business rules and scenarios had to be computed, and using sophisticated algorithms and complicated programs can only compound the problem. The simple, straightforward programming that was provided by COBOL was welcomed by the business computing community. In cases where sophisticated algorithms have to be used, COBOL usually uses suitable verbs such as SORT or SEARCH to get the job done.
One of the primary goals of the committee while designing COBOL was to make the programs comprehensible to the non-technical personnel involved in the systems. Supervisors, managers and users who are involved in the business but are not conversant with the details of programming languages could understand the basic functioning of COBOL codes because the program structure used English-like elements like clauses, verbs and sentences. However, even with a simple structure, it was difficult and sometimes impossible for the common layman to fully understand the intricacies of the logic behind programming, so the actual objective of a simple coding structure went unfulfilled. However, it made COBOL programs significantly more readable, comprehensible and thus more flexible to later revisions, even by programmers other than the creator of the program.
Portable and Platform Independent
COBOL does not belong to any specific proprietary vendor, which makes it independent of platforms and fairly portable from one machine to another. The ANSI COBOL committee decides on the non-vendor –specific language semantics and syntax formats, so that COBOL can run smoothly on virtually any platform.
Obviously, the high readability of the code ensures that COBOL codes do not become obsolete with time. The codes can be upgraded and revised to introduce new requirements at much cheaper rates as compared to implementing new codes written in other languages. COBOL’s rigid hierarchy also helps in enhancing its maintenance capabilities. All external references are defined in the Environment Division, so any change in platform or hardware, or transfer to a new machine – all these issues can be easily handled by the programmers by only making appropriate changes in the Environment Division. They will not have to search for parameters to modify in the whole program.
Critics of COBOL argue that its language structure and programming inflexibility make COBOL unsuitable as a programming language. However, these are the very cornerstones which contributed to COBOL’s readability and made it into one of the most sought after programming languages in the business computing domain. And with recent additions in the COBOL arsenal, like the OO-COBOL, there has been a significant increase in the programming capabilities of the language with the introduction of facilities like object orientation and user defined functions which were not present earlier.
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