Java's popularity is plummeting. Should you be worried?
In software engineering, times change, and trendy languages rise and fall, but some are stalwarts... right? The TIOBE Index, which tracks the popularity of programming languages across a multitude of search engines, has had Java as one of, if not the most popular language for decades. Now, its popularity is in freefall.
In 2001, Java held a substantial 26.5% rating on the index. Today, its rating is below 8%. In that same time frame, Python rose from 1.25% to 13.86% and was, on average, the most popular language of 2023. This means that, while more than a quarter of all search engine queries about programming languages used to involve Java, now it's closer to one in thirteen.
There are many reasons for this, not the least Java's enjoyability to code with. "Java is verbose," says TIOBE founder Paul Jansen. "You have to write, relatively, a lot of code to get something done. Programmers don't like that." For some, this can be an advantage; as one Java dev on Hackernews says, "I love boring. It means less outages."
Java is also slow, an important issue in financial services where speed matters. Jansen says "Java is getting faster, but still, the start-up costs are considerable." There are methods of speeding Java up in an algorithmic trading context, but they're rather elaborate and engineers doing them are costly to hire.
Nowadays, up-and-coming startups like fintechs can be the most exciting places to work. It's growing less and less likely that they will want to use Java. This is because of its licensing system. Jansen says "Oracle's commercial license strategy of Java causes a lot of confusion," and unlike the past there are plenty of viable alternatives.
What are people learning instead of Java?
The biggest like-for-like Java replacement is Kotlin, which also interacts with the Java Virtual Machine and is very interoperable with Java itself. Jensen says Kotlin is "more expressive, easier to read and write" and has no license costs.
For entry-level and student software engineers, there's been a major shift that shut out Java. "Universities started teaching Python as the first programming language instead of Java," Jensen says. Where Java was number one five years ago, that spot has now been taken by Python.
Just because Java is losing popularity, doesn't mean it's in the endgame now. A great many number of companies use Java today, including in financial services. At JPMorgan, for example, 417 of the bank's 661 open software engineering jobs mention Java. On jobs forum Blind, an engineer from eCommerce company Flowspace, says "it is not an enjoyable language at all, but there are way more jobs in it than Python."
Its long term future may be at risk, but for now, there's little to worry about. RIchard Hickling, co-founder of crypto trading analytics platform ProfitView, says "it would be a big surprise if actual Java devs have decided en masse to quit to some other language." Its popularity did fall a little in the most recent Stack Overflow survey, but more than 30% of professional developers said they knew Java.
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