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Good question. I think languages succeed by finding a niche. It's important to note that there are plenty of newer languages that are better than C in their niches.

  • C was once widely used as an application language, and in that domain it has steadily lost ground to C++, Java, and recently all sorts of other languages (notably the dynamic languages).

  • C used to be a language for writing server code. The Web pushed an amazing variety of languages into that space--Perl, Java, Python, VBScript, VB.NET, Ruby, C#--and cases where C makes any kind of sense for server code are now few and far between.

  • C has been used for scientific computing, but it faces competition from domain-specific languages like Matlab and Mathematica, as well as libraries like SciPy. A lot of people who write code in this niche are not coders by trade and C is not a great fit for them.

But C's niche is system code. Operating system kernels. Drivers. Run-time libraries. It is so established in that space that even C++ is displacing it rather slowly.

C won back in the 1970s because of UNIX, because the competing languages were either too restrictive or too slow, and because C code was considered reasonably portable (lies, even then). But its biggest advantages today are unrelated, and stem mainly from decades of dominating its niche. There are good tools for C: optimizing compilers, kernel debuggers, effective static analysis to find bugs in driver code, etc. Almost every major platform defines a C ABI, and often it's the lingua franca for libraries. There's a pool of programmers who know how to code C--and who know what C's problems and pitfalls are.

Long-term, this niche isn't going away; and C has some problems. But it would still be extremely hard for any newcomer to compete.