The beginning of the end of PHP’s popularity?

“there will be no more PHP 4 releases, regardless of whether there are security issues found in PHP 4.”

Whoa. Is PHP shooting itself in the foot here?

Despite recent hating and negativity of PHP as a programming language, there’s no debate that PHP still rules as the most popularly deployed scripting language for the web. If you separate PHP developers from those just running PHP applications, that gap widens even further. Ease of deployment for PHP apps plays a huge role in its popularity versus other languages like Python and Ruby, despite the fact there are very capable web frameworks for both. It doesn’t get much easier than purchasing a $5/mo. shared hosting account, slapping WordPress on it and having a website. But could today’s last release of PHP version 4 bring about the beginning of the end of the language’s widespread popularity as a clear leader?

Today Derick Rethans, the release manager for PHP announced version 4.4.9, which is to be the last release of version 4:

“Now, more than 3 years after the last major PHP 4 release, it is time to die down. With hardly any support for OO, sub-standard XML support and generally lots of other suckyness as well, it’s time to focus on the future: PHP 6. So please die PHP 4 – and quickly. Today, August 7th, 2008 is the last release of PHP 4 – PHP 4.4.9. After today there will be no more PHP 4 releases, regardless of whether there are security issues found in PHP 4. It’s time to upgrade now.” [link]

Now, there are reasons that popular software for PHP is to this very day still written for PHP 4. A large number of hosting providers have not made the jump to version 5. While both versions can be run simultaneously, the solution is not optimal, and a bit of a hack. A little over a year ago, Matt Mullenweg of WordPress stated his reason for not abandoning version 4. I personally disagree with his apparent “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude:

WordPress works just as well with PHP 5 as 4, and there are no features on the roadmap (including ones on your list) that would require PHP 5. The only reason for us to break PHP 4 compatibility would be political, and our users without the ability to upgrade their server would be the ones who lose. WordPress doesn’t make PHP 4 interesting or not, it’s agnostic.” [link]

I certainly agree that Matt should have his user base in mind, and that yes, WordPress as an application is not novel because of the language it is written in, but to say there is no advantage to using the PHP 5 features in the development is a bit dubious.

But now there’s a new dilemma facing both the hosting providers and application developers such as WordPress; namely, the “vendor” of PHP 4 is closing shop. As far as official PHP releases are concerned, there will be no bug fixes, security updates, feature additions, or optimizations. What will happen if a serious security hole is found? I’m not preaching FUD, but being realistic based on history. At what point will hosting providers have to upgrade? Will the application developers follow suit and take advantage of the PHP 5 features and benefits? More importantly, will the ease of use of frameworks like Rails and Django bring about the “killer apps” for the world’s blogging, e-commerce, mailing list management, classified ads, and other applications that put PHP where it is today? Is Typo indeed the next WordPress?

It’s no secret I’m a fan of PHP, warts and all. PHP will do fabulous things for you as the glue language that it is. There are plenty times when I don’t need a full-stack MVC that would just be wasteful. I wholeheartedly agree that Rails is a joy to develop with, even if it’s a pain to deploy, but I would challenge anyone to a pure Ruby vs. pure PHP hackathon to prove you can write “cowboy code” in any language.

As far as my predictions for PHP’s popularity ranking, I’m really not worried. The upgrade is not bad, the building and configuring of the software across versions follows the same conventions. Porting applications, if they need it at all, is a modest task. For PHP to lose its foothold among hosting providers, better app solutions from other languages would have to exist, become wildly popular, and have good community support for updates. Simultaneously, the frameworks and server libraries would have to be stable enough for hosting providers to support and provision. So really the choice is: modest upgrade to PHP 5, or complete overhaul to trendier languages and frameworks? Of course, we talking open source here, so I guess there’s always a possibility of a grassroots PHP 4 maintainence posse.


About John Herren

John Herren is a developer and technical consultant with focus on web applications. He currently serves as Director of Development for Primetime US, the company behind the hit movie and book The Secet. John was formerly staff writer and developer community evangelist for Zend Technologies. Along with founding neat experiments like, John is an active member in the mashup community, working with API providers and speaking at conferences. He is a published author of Linux certification study material. John enjoys using open source software like PHP and Ruby on Rails to bend the web into exciting new chimeras of hyperlinked goodness. View all posts by John Herren

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