Nearly a quarter-century later, why is C++ still so popular?

by Jeremy

Despite C++’s downward trend on the TIOBE Programming Community index since 2001, the language’s fall from the coveted top two slots in 2020, loud and persistent claims that C++ is “dead like COBOL,” and the inroads the Rust is making in developer circles – C++ is still a viable, vital and relevant as ever. 

Nearly a quarter-century later, why is C++ still so popular?

There’s no arguing with the language’s ongoing popularity. The numbers are apparent in the June 2021 TIOBE index – C++ is the fourth most popular programming language on the planet, grabbing almost 7.5% on the index and nipping at the heels of C, Java, and Python. While it’s true that this is a drop from the language’s TIOBE peak of nearly 18% in 2003, C++’s popularity remains undeniable.

How and why can a programming language standardize nearly a decade before the first iPhone is released relevant in the cloud and high-performance computing age? Let’s take a look…

Still popular, still relevant

What are the core reasons behind C++’s continuing mass-market relevance? Performance, speed, maturity, and more:

  • Performance – C++ remains the gold standard for high-performance software. Adobe uses it, the Unreal Engine is based on it, and so are Chrome and Firefox.
  • Speed – At a time when processing speed remains a bottleneck, C++ is still used to create some of the fastest software on the market.
  • Maturity – Although this may seem obvious, C++ has been around for nearly 40 years, so most software problems have already been addressed.
  • Ecosystem – C++ is a core part of most programming curricula and boasts a massive collection of dev tools, third-party components, libraries, manuals, and more.
  • Embedded – Most embedded systems, not to mention IoT devices, are powered by firmware written in C/C++.

Not just legacy

Indeed, there is also a vital element of legacy usage powering the continued relevance of C++. Many C++ projects that started decades ago (or projects that began in C++ precursors like C) are still running today. And we’re not talking about trivial stuff. For example, UNIX, Oracle’s MySQL, the Linux Kernel, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Visual Studio, and even some of Apple’s OS X were written in C++.

Yet beyond legacy projects, C++ also dominates much of today’s greenfields (new development projects). 

C++ is the predominant gaming language – powering the Unreal Engine and many of today’s biggest and most popular games. C++ also dominates IoT, defense software, and manufacturing applications – pretty much everything considered real-time is in C++.

C++ is also used for new development in performance-intensive workstation applications like CAD/CAM software or compute-intensive server-based applications like high-frequency trading. It’s used for virtual machines, device drivers, runtime interpreters, and tooling. C++ also does the heavy lifting in developing AI-driven applications and remains a core part of Google’s Android OS. And the list goes on…

The bottom line

C++, in its fourth decade, is only gaining in popularity. Newer languages like C# and Java will continue to lead the market in the years to come, yet C++ will remain right alongside. 

C++ is a powerful and continuously-evolving language that helped and continues to help create the foundations of computing as we know it. With its next update set for 2023, a massive developer community, and an immense knowledge base – not to mention best practices, external libraries, components, and tools that would take decades to mature in newer languages – C++ is too entrenched in modern computing to fade away.

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