The COBOL Programming Language

As a computer science college student, I’ve spent some time studying different programming languages. From modern, high development velocity scripting languages for a startup like JavaScript to machine learning undefeated king Python, from newborn Go to cooperate staple like Java, C++, or even C. However, recently, one programming language suddenly took my notice, one that I’ve never heard of before, that one is COBOL.

A Brief History

COBOL, which stands for “Common Business Oriented Language,” is a programming language designed in 1959 by a group of programmers for business use. As a high-level programming language, programs written in COBOL can be run on more than one manufacturer’s computer instead of other contemporary machine-specific counterparts.

Why Use COBOL, Benefits, and Downsides

COBOL, unlike other programming languages of its time, was designed to be portable and machine-independent. Programs are written in COBOL also have English-like syntax. These are the two main reasons why COBOL was so attractive for business purposes. Even people who worked on finance-related jobs with less programming experience could learn COBOL much easier than low-level machine languages. Also, their programs didn’t need to be modified to work on other computers when the firms updated their infrastructure. This significantly reduces the cost to rewrite programs every couple of years, not to mention the massive risk behind it. For business and financial services like banking, nothing is more important than stability and security. And COBOL is an excellent option to achieve them.


COBOL had its glory days. Back in the day when it was heavily used by the Department of Defense and big banks. I soon became the industry standard alongside with few other programming languages like Fortran and ALGOL.

Get Started with COBOL

Being one of the first high-level portable programming languages, COBOL shares many fundamental concepts like branching, looping, etc. However, the similarities quickly end here. As mentioned above, COBOL syntax is wordy and rigid. Each program is divided into four divisions: identification, environment, data, and procedure.


The Future of COBOL

There is no doubt that COBOL is in decline. Its application is now minimal. Later, more modern general-purpose programming languages have replaced COBOL even in its once dominated territory: banking and financial systems. As the year passes, fewer and fewer programmers with deep knowledge about COBOL remain active. Only ancient and legacy government systems and some private firms are still running on COBOL in their decades-old mainframes. The state of New Jersey even called for volunteers who know COBOL to maintain its systems amid of COVID-19 pandemic to deal with an unprecedented surge of unemployment benefit applications.

Takeaway on COBOL

COBOL pioneered high-level portable programing languages that once dominated the banking and financial industry and gave rise to later modern languages to replace the machine-specific ones. Although having many advantages, its heavy focus on business purpose, wordy syntax, and the dependence on ancient technologies finally led to the irreversible decline of COBOL. However, at least in the next couple of decades, COBOL still plays an essential role in our daily life due to the legacy systems written in it.

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