PHP is Alive and Well, Thank You

PHP is Alive and Well, Thank You

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated – Mark Twain

Periodically, articles and blogs appear, predicting the demise of PHP as a programming language. Here is a typical headline:

“PHP, Once The Web’s Favorite Programming Language, Is On The Wane”. This is an article by Lauren Orsini, who bemoans the fact that she has embarked on learning a programming language that seems to be on its way out. This was posted in August 2014. While Lauren was not a player in the industry, the general reaction she received from her colleagues was “Why bother?”.

Here is another article predicting an imminent end for PHP:

“Is the web’s love affair with PHP over?”

The author of this piece, John Andrews, the COO of Evans Data Corporation (EDC) at the time, is a far more authoritative voice than Lauren – who after all, is new to software – and he said the industry was going to focus on “more important” technologies. He also cites Python and Perl as languages on the wane. EDC is a company that does market research on the software industry. The interesting thing about this article is that it was posted in August 2005. Somehow, these “three Ps”, PHP, Perl and Python have managed to survive all these predictions.

What are the Facts?

There are several sites devoted to collecting statistics about the software industry. This is not an easy job, and there is debate about what data is relevant. One of the sites, the Transparent Language Popularity Index (TLPI) gave up in July 2013, saying it was too complex to extract data from the various search engines. We are going to take data from 2 sites: PYPL and Tiobe, which have different index criteria, to analyze whether PHP is going indeed vanish in the near future and whether being a PHP web development company is still a viable business model.

Data from PYPL showing the top 10 programming languages according to them.

PYPL Popularity of Programming Language

You will see from the graph above that PHP is ranked 3rd. The 1.1% drop in popularity is not something we should be too concerned about, considering Java dropped 1.3%.

If you compare Tiobe’s rankings, they do differ, but this is because the list includes many more languages that are excluded from PYPL’s list, and the selection criteria are different. However, PHP is still listed in the Top 10.

Tiobe's Top 10 of Programming Language

Why Do You Care?

If you are a business owner or CIO and you either have an existing website that uses PHP on the server side, or are contemplating building a new site, the longevity of PHP is obviously of concern to you. Do you stay with this well-known and seasoned software program or do you move to another language, like Node JS?

If you are an experienced or aspiring developer, and are looking to acquire skills in PHP or have skills in PHP and wonder how much longer you can earn a living utilizing these skills, the future of PHP is very important to you too.

Well the good news, according to W3Techs (Web Technology Services) as at the beginning of May 2017, PHP is used by 82.6% of all websites. This percentage does not indicate that PHP will be going anywhere in the near future. From the graph below, you will see that Ruby, Python and Perl hardly get a look-in, and only ASP.NET is a contender.

Percentages of websites using various
Data source: https://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/programming_language/all

So What is PHP Exactly?

PHP, or Personal Home Page, as it was originally known, was developed by Rasmus Lerdorf in 1994. Lerdorf never intended for PHP to become a programming language, but it grew organically through to the current iteration, Release 7, and is an open-source product. Efficiency was never a feature, because of the way PHP developed, but the latest release, PHP 7, has addressed pre-existing performance issues.

PHP is used by some of the world’s biggest websites, notably Facebook. Although FB now runs on Hack, this language is a dialect of PHP. Wikipedia, Tumblr and Mailchimp are three other heavy hitters, but there are plenty more companies of note on that list, such as China’s Baidu. Until there is a concerted move by these big players, you can rest assured that there is still a place for PHP. The use of PHP for WordPress entrenches it even more. There is yet another debate on whether WordPress is dying, but that is outside the scope of this discussion.

A Telling Indication of PHP’s Resilience

Much of the debate around the prevalence and popularity of software ignores a very basic and critical reality: companies have invested time and money to get to where they are today technologically. They are in no rush to throw out something that is working. What is a very strong indicator that companies with PHP sites are not moving in the near future is the version upgrade to Release 7. With the exception of PHP 5.6, the highest release of version 5, all earlier versions are no longer supported (there is no Version 6, but that is another story).

When support falls away for your existing software, that is the right time to make a migration decision to move to another language. What has instead happened, is that many customers who were on versions 4 and 5, have upgraded to Version 7. This is a very strong indicator that they are content with the status quo and no have no intention of changing yet. This is a very strong indicator of the future viability of PHP.

A bar graph here showing the increase in adoption of PHP release 7, comparing values for May 2016 against November 2016.

The increase in adoption of PHP release 7
Data source: https://seld.be/notes/php-versions-stats-2016-2-edition

The Persistence of Language

For those developers who were unsure of the life expectancy of PHP, there is no need to worry that learning PHP is a fool’s errand. Unlike hardware, which is physical and its obsolescence can be demonstrated visually, software languages are both virtual and a means of communication. This is why these languages, just like real languages, are so persistent. Before you consign PHP to some dead language scrapheap, here is a very interesting take on some venerable coding systems that are still alive and kicking. Some are not only surviving; they are thriving. What’s more, they have probably been around longer than most of the readers of this article.

There are other “old-timers” in the software lexicon. The ones we have chosen are all 50 years old or more; they are listed according to their May 2017 ranking in Tiobe’s index.

  • DELPHI/PASCAL (Ranked 18). OK, Pascal is not quite 50 years old, but, together with its derivative Delphi, is amazingly popular.
  • BASIC (Ranked 12). Originally designed to help students learn coding, basic, in many variants, the current one of which is Visual Basic, is still widely used.
  • SAS (Ranked 21). Originally developed in the 60s at North Carolina State University, with its powerful mathematical analytics, SAS is still going strong and finding new favor with Data scientists.
  • COBOL (Ranked 25). The first language to resemble English, Cobol has been around since 1960 and is still going strong. All those big mainframe installations and many software packages for organizations like banks and insurance companies are running on Cobol.
  • FORTRAN (Ranked 30). Developed in the 1950s, Fortran was a language written for scientific programming. Using Fortran was more efficient than writing a complex scientific formula in assembler. It is finding new popularity in the data science business.
  • RPG II (Ranked 45). This is a puzzling entry. What it indicates is that there are many old IBM System 36 machines out there still doing a job.

What this list of venerable software does indicate is that there is usually a niche opportunity for someone who can still program in these languages. So, even if PHP dwindles in popularity over the next 10 years, there will still be work out there for an experienced PHP developer. There will also be many small to medium sized companies with PHP and WordPress sites, that will need maintenance and updates. The uptake of PHP version 7 shows that there will still be a committed user base out there for some years to come.

John Barnett

  • Christopher

    I think PHP is on the decline (thank goodness), but as you mentioned, so are COBOL, PL/I, FORTRAN, and other legacy languages (Not that I’d consider PHP legacy at this point. It’s not far off, though).

    PHP won’t go anywhere for the same reason as those languages: It’s already got millions of lines of code written. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it is definitely on the decline, and will probably continue that way. It’s going to be a very, very slow decline, so learning it is fine. I personally wouldn’t write anything new with it if I had a choice, however. There are much better alternatives.

    And yes, many sites are written in PHP, but a big reason for that can be attributed to blogs using services like WordPress. It’s a bit of a useless metric, though. How many of those sites get a reasonable amount of traffic? How many are just dead sites? Anyone can get a WordPress blog up in a couple hours (Maybe even minutes) and never touch it again.

    Any new, serious websites expecting significant traffic should avoid PHP. C#, Java, or Python are much better alternatives. But for a hobby site, PHP is still a great choice using a CMS like WordPress is a great option. You can have a site up in a few minutes with easy to use themes and publishing tools. Use the right tool for the job.