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It’s been a very busy start to the year at RedMonk, so we’re a few weeks behind in the release of our bi-annual programming language rankings. The data was dutifully collected at the start of the year, but we’re only now getting around to the the analysis portion. We have changed the actual process very little since Drew Conway and John Myles White’s original work late in 2010. The basic concept is simple: we periodically compare the performance of programming languages relative to one another on GitHub and Stack Overflow. The idea is not to offer a statistically valid representation of current usage, but rather to correlate language discussion (Stack Overflow) and usage (GitHub) in an effort to extract insights into potential future adoption trends.
With the exception of GitHub’s decision to no longer provide language rankings on its Explore page – they are now calculated from the GitHub archive – the rankings are performed in the same manner, meaning that we can compare rankings from run to run, and year to year, with confidence.
Historically, the correlation between how a language ranks on GitHub versus its ranking on Stack Overflow has been strong, but this had been weakening in recent years. From its highs of .78, the correlation was down to .73 during our last run – the lowest recorded. For this run, however, the correlation between the properties is once again robust. For this quarter’s ranking, the correlation between the properties was .77, just shy of its all time mark. Given the recent variation, however, it will be interesting to observe whether or not this number continues to bounce.
Before we continue, please keep in mind the usual caveats.
To be included in this analysis, a language must be observable within both GitHub and Stack Overflow.
No claims are made here that these rankings are representative of general usage more broadly. They are nothing more or less than an examination of the correlation between two populations we believe to be predictive of future use, hence their value.
There are many potential communities that could be surveyed for this analysis. GitHub and Stack Overflow are used here first because of their size and second because of their public exposure of the data necessary for the analysis. We encourage, however, interested parties to perform their own analyses using other sources.
All numerical rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. We rank by numbers here strictly for the sake of interest. In general, the numerical ranking is substantially less relevant than the language’s tier or grouping. In many cases, one spot on the list is not distinguishable from the next. The separation between language tiers on the plot, however, is generally representative of substantial differences in relative popularity.
In addition, the further down the rankings one goes, the less data available to rank languages by. Beyond the top tiers of languages, depending on the snapshot, the amount of data to assess is minute, and the actual placement of languages becomes less reliable the further down the list one proceeds.
(click to embiggen the chart)
Besides the above plot, which can be difficult to parse even at full size, we offer the following numerical rankings. As will be observed, this run produced several ties which are reflected below (they are listed out here alphabetically rather than consolidated as ties because the latter approach led to misunderstandings). Note that this is actually a list of the Top 21 languages, not Top 20, because of said ties.
19 Visual Basic
Outside of the Top 10, however, here are some of the more notable performers.
Elixir: The Erlang-friendly language made a notable jump this time around. The last quarter we surveyed languages, Elixir placed at #60. As of this January, it had jumped to #54. While we caution against reading too much into specific numerical differences, the more so the further down the list one goes, this change is notable as it suggests that the language – a darling amongst some language aficionados – is finally seeing some of the growth ourselves and others have expected from it. Interestingly, Erlang did not benefit from this bounce, as it slid back to #26 after moving up to #25 last quarter.
Julia: Julia’s growth has been the tortoise to other languages’ hares historically, and this run was no exception. For this run, Julia moves from #52 to #51. Given the language’s slow ascent, it’s worth questioning the dynamics behind its adoption, and more specifically whether any developments might be anticipated that would materially change its current trajectory. So far, the answer to that question has been no, but certainly its focus on performance and syntactical improvement would seem to offer would-be adopters a carrot.
Rust: Another popular choice among language enthusiasts, Rust’s growth has outpaced slower growth languages like Elixir or Julia, but not by much. This time around, Rust moves up two spots from #48 to #46. The interesting question for Rust is when, or perhaps if, it will hit the proverbial tipping point, the critical mass at which usage becomes self-reinforcing and an engine for real growth. Go went through this, where its growth through the mid to low thirties was relatively modest, then picked up substantially until it entered the Top 20. In the meantime, it will have to settle for modest but steady gains quarter after quarter.
Swift: Swift’s meteoric rise has predictably slowed as it’s entered the Top 20, but importantly has not stopped. For this ranking, Swift moves up one spot from #18 to #17. As always, growth is more difficult the closer you get to the top, and in passing Matlab, Swift now finds itself a mere two spots behind Go – in spite of being five years younger. It is also three spots behind Scala and only four behind R. Which means that Swift finds itself ranked alongside languages of real popularity and traction, and is within hailing distance of our Tier 1 languages (R is the highest ranking Tier 2). The interesting thing is that Swift still has the potential to move significantly; its current traction was achieved in spite of being a relatively closed alternative amongst open source alternatives. Less than four weeks before we took this quarter’s snapshot of data, Swift was finally open sourced by Apple, which means that the full effect of this release won’t be felt until next quarter’s ranking. This release was important for developers, who typically advantage open source runtimes at the expense of proprietary alternatives, but also because it allows third parties to feel comfortable investing in the community in a way they would not for a proprietary stack – see IBM’s enthusiastic embrace of Swift. This means that Swift has, uniquely, multiple potential new engines for growth. So it will be interesting indeed to see what impact the release has on Swift overall adoption, and whether it can propel it near or actually into the Top 10.
We are regularly asked why we don’t run the language rankings more regularly – every quarter or even on a monthly basis. The answer is that there isn’t enough movement in the data to justify it; programming languages are popular enough and the switching costs are sufficient to mean that significantly shifting adoption is a slow, gradual process. For every language language except Swift, anyway.
It will be interesting to see whether or not we’ll see new entrants into the Tier 1 of languages, with the most likely candidate at this point being Swift followed by Go. Further down the list, several interesting but currently niche languages are getting close to thresholds at which they have the potential to see substantial, if not guaranteed growth. Not the kind that will take them into the Top 10, but certainly there are vulnerable languages at the back end of the Top 20. In the meantime, we’ll keep checking in every other quarter to report back on progress – or the lack thereof – in any of the above areas.
One More Thing
Of all the requests we receive around our programming language rankings, the ability to browse the history of their performance is by far the most common. The current rank of a language is of great interest, of course, but for many previous rankings and the trajectory they imply are at least as interesting, and in some cases more so.
We’ve been thinking about this for a while, and while a number of different visualizations were assessed, there are so many different angles to the data a one size fits all approach was less than ideal. Which led to the evaluation a few dynamic alternatives, which were interesting but had some issues. Rather than hold up this quarter’s already delayed release for a visualization that had potential but might not work, then, we went ahead and published the rankings.
Over the weekend, however, the last major obstacles were addressed. It’s not perfect, but the historical depiction of the rankings is in a state where we can at least share a preliminary release. A few notes:
This is not a complete ranking of all the languages we survey. It includes only languages that are currently or have been at one time in the Top 20.
This graphic is interactive, and allows you to select as many or as few languages as you prefer. Just click on the language in the legend to toggle them on or off. This is helpful because Swift fundamentally breaks any visual depiction of growth: de-select it and the chart becomes much more readable.
The visualization here, courtesy of Ramnath Vaidyanathan’s rCharts package, is brand new and hasn’t been extensively tested. Mobile may or may not work, and given the hoops we had to jump through to host a D3-based visualization on a self-hosted WordPress instance, it’s likely that some browsers won’t support the visualization, HTTPS will break it, etc. We’ll work on all of that, and do let us know if you have problems, but we wanted to share at least the preliminary working copy as soon as we were able.
With that, we hope you enjoy this visual depiction of the Historical Programming Language Rankings.