What Hardware Inspires Programming Language Design?

In early computing history, the government, academia, and industry collaborated to create languages for mainframes. The enduring ones were COBOL and Fortran.

You’d think that the PC era, when computing was delivering doublings in power every couple of years that it would also have been a time of programming language innovation. Aside from Microsoft, in the 70’s-2000’s, most of the PC companies didn’t do much here. IBM, Intel, AMD, Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, and Compaq made all the hardware, but contributed nothing to programming languages. Sun is the only hardware company that bucked this trend.

The photocopier, with Smalltalk, did more than the PC to drive programming language design than the PC. Fifty years of OO dominance followed.

But, for driving programming language development, nothing beats phones.

Telephone profits powered Bell Labs, which invented a lot of important tech, but some of the most enduring are the programming languages they developed. To limit it to just the ones I have used professionally, there are C, C++, Awk, KSH and the document processing languages troff, pic, and eqn. I’m probably leaving out about a dozen more.

AT&T was the most prolific converter of phone calls to programming languages, but Ericsson created Erlang, and Apple’s iPhone profits drove them to create Swift. You can give most of the credit for Kotlin to Android.

In the end, it’s probably money that does most of the work, and the real driver seems to be when it coalesces to a single winner.