Is RPG Dead? The Autopsy

In a previous post, I promised to say more on the subject of RPG’s death. But I’m finding it tougher than I expected. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not for lack of content. It’s just that I worked with RPG for a long time. I don’t want to see RPG go away. Writing this blog posting feels like I’m kicking an old friend while he’s down on the ground. On the other hand, it’s just a programming language. And the facts need to be understood.

When I first learned RPG III, 31 years ago, I was impressed by a couple of things. First, I was impressed with the externally-described file. As far as I knew, no other language had such a powerful feature. Second, I was impressed with the syntax-checking source editor. At my university, some professors were just beginning to think about something like that.

But other aspects of RPG III were definitely goofy, such as the fixed-form syntax and the indicators. Fortunately, the language has grown since then. Indicators can be largely avoided, and calculations can be coded in a free-form syntax. However, although RPG has progressed, other languages have progressed faster, and new languages have cropped up with even more powerful features. More and more, RPG looks like an anachronism, rather than a modern programming language.

I’ll list some features that are commonplace in other, modern programming languages that RPG still lacks:

1) Namespaces. That is, what happens when you want to import two libraries with the same name? In languages like Java and Python, imports can be put into a directory hierarchy. And if there are conflicts, things can be renamed.

2) User-defined data types. Sorry, data structures and LIKEREC just don’t cut it.

3) Object-oriented programming. What language doesn’t have OO support these days? It’s something we now take for granted elsewhere.

4) Extensive list of built-in functions or classes. Just compare what RPG has to the Python Standard Library or PHP’s Function Reference. No comparison.

5) Frameworks. Most modern programming languages have a goodly selection of frameworks that simplify programming web applications. These frameworks have various levels of functionality, however, typically they take care of a lot of nitty-gritty details. Using a framework, you should never see a query string, or XML, or JSON, or SQL.

6) Operating system independence. Programs written in languages like Java, Python, and PHP can easily be ported across different operating systems.

Some would argue that RPG could be further enhanced to address these short-comings. But why bother when there are already other languages that have these features? The planners at IBM certainly know what’s lacking in RPG, and they still seem to have the resources to make the occasional enhancement. But over the past decade, there seems to have been little effort to address these specific short-comings. Looking at the situation from that perspective, one could argue that IBM itself also sees no future for RPG.

So far, I’ve written about 500 words, and yet there’s still more to be said. Stay tuned.

(Update: Next installment: Is RPG Dead? The Wake)

Cheers! Hans

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