Fourth-generation programming language

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A fourth-generation programming language (1970s-1990) (abbreviated 4GL) is a programming language or programming environment designed with a specific purpose in mind, such as the development of commercial business software.[1] In the history of computer science, the 4GL followed the 3GL in an upward trend toward higher abstraction and statement power. The 4GL was followed by efforts to define and use a 5GL.

The natural-language, block-structured mode of the third-generation programming languages improved the process of software development. However, 3GL development methods can be slow and error-prone. It became clear that some applications could be developed more rapidly by adding a higher-level programming language and methodology which would generate the equivalent of very complicated 3GL instructions with fewer errors. In some senses, software engineering arose to handle 3GL development. 4GL and 5GL projects are more oriented toward problem solving and systems engineering.[citation needed]

All 4GLs are designed to reduce programming effort, the time it takes to develop software, and the cost of software development. They are not always successful in this task, sometimes resulting in inelegant and unmaintainable code. However, given the right problem, the use of an appropriate 4GL can be spectacularly successful as was seen with MARK-IV and MAPPER (see History Section, Santa Fe real-time tracking of their freight cars – the productivity gains were estimated to be 8 times over COBOL). The usability improvements obtained by some 4GLs (and their environment) allowed better exploration for heuristic solutions than did the 3GL.

A quantitative definition of 4GL has been set by Capers Jones, as part of his work on function point analysis. Jones defines the various generations of programming languages in terms of developer productivity, measured in function points per staff-month. A 4GL is defined as a language that supports 12–20 FP/SM. This correlates with about 16–27 lines of code per function point implemented in a 4GL.

Fourth-generation languages have often been compared to domain-specific programming languages (DSLs). Some researchers state that 4GLs are a subset of DSLs.[2][3] Given the persistence of assembly language even now[when?] in advanced development environments (MS Studio), one[who?] expects that a system ought to be a mixture of all the generations, with only very limited use of the first.

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