Language C is widely used when we require high-speed data processing in real time. Plenty of prominent pieces of software, like Windows and Python, are written in it.
At the same time, C is sometimes mistakenly regarded as too difficult, obsolete, and out-of-fashion. We disagree! Let’s talk about what this language is used for, why it’s worth learning for a programming career, and why you shouldn’t believe the myths.
High-level and low-level languages
Before discussing C's features, it’s good to get a brief understanding of the differences between the two categories of computer languages ― low-level and high-level. This will arm you with a better understanding of what makes C unique and highly sought-after.
A low-level language, often referred to as “an assembler”, is a language that can be understood by the computer. It looks like a big set of numbers and letters, which it uses to receive commands. In brief, a command directly tells the machine which part of the information to take from which part of the memory, where to transfer it, and which operation to perform with it.
Imagine you’re driving a car and directly instructing the right wheel to turn at 30° after five milliseconds without using an intermediary (a steering wheel). This is how the low-level language works.
High-level languages, such as Python, Java, Rust, Swift, Kotlin, etc., use syntax and commands that more closely resemble regular human communication ― operations you know from math class, and cycles whose meanings are easily discerned even by those who've never coded a line — “for” and “while”.
Here is what the “Hello, World!” program code looks like in an assembly, a low-level language, and in Python, a high-level language:
A high-level language is like a steering wheel in your car: you move it, and somehow, the wheels turn too. Between the steering wheel and the wheels are a lot of intermediary mechanisms. You don’t need to know how they work or that they even exist.
Your program, written in a high-level language, is first translated into an assembler, and then it gives commands to the computer’s hardware to do something you need.
What makes C so special?
C is considered a high-level language. To be precise, it’s actually somewhere in the middle between the two categories. In computer science, languages that are fit for the creation of both application and system software are typically referred to as “system programming languages”, with C being a classical example.
- Its purpose, tools, and syntax are designed so that it can closely interact with the computer’s hardware.
- At the same time, it’s written in human-like commands, and has functions similar to the ones in Java or Python, for example, “include” (input a file or a function) or “printf” (you’ve probably guessed, this prints the contents of the screen).
Here is how the “Hello, World!” simple program’s code looks in С:
The upsides of C are self-evident:
- The close associations with physical hardware, and the direct interaction with it made programs composed in C quite fast.
- Commands and functions easily understood by a human made it possible to learn the language and create software faster than with an assembly language.
The simplicity, combined with the speed, led to C’s growing popularity among programmers.
Although C was originally invented for a rather limited range of operating systems, programmers began to use it for other platforms, making the language cross-platform. Today, a program written in C can run on any physical machine or operating system, be it Ubuntu, Windows, Android, iOs, and so on. The hardware includes Macbooks, gaming consoles like Xbox and PlayStation, as well as complex devices: insulin pumps and other medical equipment, and even the aerospace kind, such as the Starlink satellites.
Of course, this compatibility comes at a cost, as some upgrading of the code may be required due to the specifics of machine functionality and libraries. However, the cost of additional work is just a fraction of the advantages this compatibility brings.
C is simply fast and effective for products that require processing large chunks of data, especially in real-time, as in the case of video streaming platforms or surveillance camera systems, such as the Axis Camera Application Platform. С possesses the minimum necessary arsenal to get the job done.
Imagine going to a shop to buy a car. You would certainly be offered a machine with a lot of options that make driving more comfortable and safer: an ABS system, climate control, cruise control and parking assist, soundproofing, double glass units, the works.
The car under the “C” brand would not have all these amenities that make the car heavier and slower. It would, however, have a powerful engine, wheels, and other minimum requirements, necessary for the car to function as a car. This car would be able to take more onboard, go faster, and take up much less space in the garage.
Are C++, C#, and Objective-C relatives, or just have similar names?
However, there are differences between C and its offspring. They are usually in the size of their arsenals compared to their “parent” and their approaches to writing code. Nevertheless, they have a common idea — C’s advantages and syntax serve as a base upon which various tools are added to extend and amplify C’s strengths. These tools make them heavier and slower ― like the car from the previous example, but help coders better accomplish their tasks.
All of that means that learning C paves the way to learning other languages from the C family quicker. Can they replace C? In many cases ― yes, but not entirely.
Where is C usually used?
Minimalism still delivers rewards. C has its own niche and fan base, just as Python does.
The language is often referred to as a tool for the production of software for software. C is used for developing operating systems, drivers, programs, libraries, and much more. Here are just some examples of numerous software created in C:
- Operating systems: Windows, Linux, and macOS
- Network protocols: HTTP and TCP/IP
- Mobile operating systems: iOS and Android
- Web browsers: Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome
- Gaming engines: Unity and Unreal Engine.
These examples destroy the myth that C is an old language that’s not in high demand anymore.
C is also used in scientific and engineering software, in high-load systems that are required to process a lot of data in real-time ― let’s say, online video streaming. Can you guess where the following quote comes from?
“Transcode system — We take the incoming RTMP stream from the broadcaster, and transcode it into multiple HLS streams. This is implemented via a combination of C/C++, and Go.”
This is from Twitch — the most popular interactive streaming platform for video games! C’s capabilities are an excellent fit for the Internet of Things products, as well as various sensors and security systems.
Peculiarities of learning C
There is a myth that C is difficult to grasp, unlike Python or Java. Not at all.
You do need a basic knowledge of computer science in order to work with C ― such as an understanding of how the computer is designed and how it works, things like the processor, memory, the logic of how the computer processes data, computer architecture, and the mechanics of computer networks.
You should also understand that C is a language as dangerous as it is powerful. Due to its proximity to the hardware of the machine, it can impact it directly, and with serious consequences.
For instance, a C-written low-level program can take up the whole memory of the machine unless some special measures were taken. In the case of Python, Java, or any other high-level language you’ll not be able to damage your machine that way, as you just don’t have access to the memory.
C is often compared with a Formula One race car: it’s incredibly fast, but a high speed is both an advantage and a risk at the same time. The good news is that most of the risks can be avoided with the help of proper education and practice.
There are two features of the language that make it significantly easier to learn.
- The minimalist style it’s been created in means that you have rather little information to learn to start coding. Remember our analogy above with the car? You just don’t need to know how to use climate control and other amenities. You only need to know how to push a pedal and turn the steering wheel.
- The second feature is that its orientation toward the computer’s hardware results in relatively infrequent upgrades. For example, if you haven’t coded in C++ for five years, you would have to learn a lot of new information before getting back to it. That is not the case with C. It gets renewed, of course ― but much slower. For example, the book that beginners typically use nowadays ― "The C Programming Language" by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan ― was written in 1978. A classic that never gets old.
All that said, what does C look like? Well, if you look at the code of the two simple programs below, written in C and Java, you will hardly see a big difference.
Will C be in demand in the future?
You might be familiar with a concern in the IT industry that one-day robots or artificial intelligence ― or artificial intelligence-driven robots ― will replace human beings as coders. However, these robots, or what(who)ever they are, will need software to work. Who will then be creating this software other than human beings? We’re talking of course about coders who write programs in C, as is the case today.
It’s no surprise that the average annual salary of a C developer in the U.S. in 2023 is nearly $100,000 and shows no signs of decreasing. So there is every sense to enroll in courses where you can dive into the profession quickly and with good chances to be hired soon after graduation, if not earlier.
There is another benefit, however. You may have heard that studying Latin opens the door to quickly learning other languages. That’s true for C too.
Since it has influenced its many offspring, as we have shown, learning C provides a fast track to learning Python, Java, and many other languages ― a crucial advantage for a modern coder... with one small difference: C is not a dead language, like Latin.
And should you decide that the profession of C developer doesn’t fit your ambitions, you can always select from numerous other skill sets in IT, offered by our bootcamps. Start your journey toward your dream job today!