Why C++ will not die

If you work with programming, from time to time you will see articles talking about the inevitable downfall of C++ as a main programming language.  Some people go as far as to say that C++ is even harmful to your career and that you should avoid using it whenever possible.

Despite the reasons why some people dislike C/C++, I believe that the backlash against C and C++ is rooted more on lack of understanding than on real fact.

The Case for C

C was created to be a language for professional programmers, not for people that are still learning the trade. The designers of C created it as a means to efficiently develop operating systems. One of the consequences of this design is that C is as close to the hardware as one can get without using assembly itself.

This may be bad if you are just starting, but it is liberating if you are a seasoned programmer that really wants to get the most out of the machine.

If you look at the criticisms against C, the most important arguments are that it makes it easy for programmers to shoot themselves on the foot. No wonder, C was created exactly to make such things possible.

Writing Simple Programs Quickly

If your goal is to write small programs easily, you should stop your criticism of C. The fact is that for writing small, simple programs C doesn’t count. Such programs should be written in Perl, Python, or whatever flavor of scripting language is the most popular at the time. This is what UNIX programmers have done forever. 

For small programs that impose no bottleneck on the system any language is OK, as long as it makes it easier to solve the problem at hand. Lisp and Prolog are excellent to solve symbolic problems, for example. Quick file processing can be solved with Perl.

Large Scale Programs

Now, let us talk about the programs that really matter in each platform, i.e., large scale software that imposes a bottleneck on the machine.

In higher level languages, such as Pascal, Java, or Lisp, one is working with protective gear that allows them to be sloppy without sacrifice of safety. This is not to say that one cannot write efficient programs in Lisp, say, but doing this is harder than usual.

In a language like Lisp, if you want to write efficient code you need to understand all sources of bottlenecks. This usually means you have to understand how your particular system is implemented and how the underlying architecture works. Then, you need to find ways to avoid such bottlenecks, and doing this usually means going to a lower level of programming such as (guess what) rewrite you program  in C or assembly (or maybe using typed expression in Lisp, which is just another way of thinking in assembly).

In other words, you have to be really expert in the language, in the implementation of the language, and in the underlying machine in order to write something out-of-ordinary. And if you have the knowledge to do this, it might be easier just to write everything in C. On the other hand, while you may need to do this just in a few cases on the whole program, the bigger your program is the higher the chances you will need to go lower level more frequently. This is why writing a web browser or an operating system in anything else other than C/C++ is such a difficult proposition.

Now compare the situation with C. Sure, you cannot expect that a novice programmer will know how to handle pointers or null terminated strings. That is fine, though, because C was not made for them. The C language was created as a vehicle to write efficient software for people that care enough to use such a tool.

Notice, however, that once you master a few concepts you can treat C as just another high level language, but one that matches closely to hardware concepts like real memory addresses. Maybe you will lose the illusion of objects, for example, but you will gain a real ground on what happens in the computer.

What about C++

I talked a lot about C, but what about C++?

C++ is the child of C that was adopted by the industry. C++ has everything that the industry likes about a technology: it has buzzwords, it is constantly changing and requiring new tools and compilers, it has strong support from big companies like Microsoft, and it  has a lot of legacy code.

The legacy issue with C++ is so important that C++ has essentially killed C as a commercial product. You don’t buy nowadays a C compiler, you by a C++ compiler that can also compile C code. In this sense, C++ is really important, because it is the only way C programmers can continue using C.

Also, despite the many problems with the extensions created by C++, many of them are really useful, such as namespaces, a standard library of containers, and basic support for objects. So, basically all commercial installations of C++ can use C and pick-and-choose the features from C++ that they want (see for example Google’s style guide for C++ [2]).

In conclusion, although a lot of people don’t love C/C++, it has an important role in the industry that is not been filled by any other language. This probably means that we will continue to see good C++ programmers making money and working on interesting projects in several areas.

Further Reading

Many of the advantages and disadvantages of C++ for large scale programs are listed on  Large Scale C++ Software Design, by Lakos.

An even deeper description of C++ model is given in Inside the C++ Object Model, by Lippman.

[1] http://www.ittybittycomputers.com/IttyBitty/CppHarm.htm

[2] http://google-styleguide.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/cppguide.xml

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About the Author

Carlos Oliveira holds a PhD in Systems Engineering and Optimization from University of Florida. He works as a software engineer, with more than 10 years of experience in developing high performance, commercial and scientific applications in C++, Java, and Objective-C. His most Recent Book is Practical C++ Financial Programming.

8 Responses to “Why C++ will not die”

  1. Your suggestion that a low level language like C++ is equality capable as something like Python is very interesting… I can things in Python that would take forever to do in C. I believe *that* is what matters.

    By James B. on Jan 18, 2010

  2. gcc is a free, open source C/C++ compiler and is widely used.

    By jokester on Jan 18, 2010

  3. You start off ok, but you lost me when you went off the rails here:

    “Despite the reasons why some people dislike C/C++, I believe that the backlash against C and C++ is rooted more on lack of understanding than on real fact.”

    C is not C++. Don’t lump C in with C++. C doesn’t deserve that kind of insult.

    By SteveC on Jan 19, 2010

  4. Don’t mesh C with C++.

    By . on Jan 19, 2010

  5. @Steve, I have tried to make a separate case for C and C++. C++ advantage is mostly that it has become a successful commercial version of C. But it is in use by lots of people, so it won’t go away.

    By coliveira on Jan 19, 2010

  6. Actually, lumping C and C++ together is an insult to C++, not to C. C++ is by no means a perfect language and it has got quite a few things wrong (in this respect it fits in well with almost any other language), but it is a HUGE step up from C.

    By Markus Kemp on Feb 10, 2011

  7. ok…why a language is diminish…in market due to lack of it’s application or usefulness. but I found C++ is touched every corner of the of software industry..from system program to embedded kind of program so..I don’t think so..
    we have to do a lot of research and development on this field to keep our loving language alive…

    By chandan Jena on Mar 31, 2012

  8. Don’t taint C by lumping it in with C++.

    By Kirby on Jun 10, 2014

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