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PHP creator extolls language's modest start

Joab Jackson | July 20, 2012
It is one of the widely used programming languages across the Web today, but PHP was created with decidedly modest ambitions, according to the creator of the language.

It is one of the widely used programming languages across the Web today, but PHP was created with decidedly modest ambitions, according to the creator of the language.

"PHP doesn't really blaze a trail of innovation," admitted Rasmus Lerdorf, who created and now helps maintain the Web programming language. Lerdorf talked about the past and the future of PHP at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, being held this week in Portland, Oregon.

Lerdorf's talk was a timely one, given the increasing rancor the language has seemingly provoked over the past few years. In an essay that was widely circulated on Twitter, developer Alex Munroe detailed a litany of what he felt were bad design decisions behind the language.

"Virtually every feature in PHP is broken somehow. The language, the framework, the ecosystem, are all just bad. And I can't even point out any single damning thing, because the damage is so systemic," Munroe wrote.

Others had also posted similar complaints. Even "New York" magazine -- not exactly known for its technical acumen -- has piled on, stating, "PHP is a programming language like scrapple is a meat."

"I had no intention of writing a language. I didn't have a clue how to write a language. I didn't want to write a language," Lerdorf said of PHP's origins. "I just wanted to solve a problem of churning out Web applications very, very fast."

Lerdorf wrote PHP in 1993 to handle simple interactive tasks such as one with the ability to query a user and generate a form based on the results. But at the time, "the amount of code you needed to write just wasn't feasible," Lerdorf said. He tried using Perl, but writing HTML code within a Perl program was difficult for him, given the syntax rules of Perl. So, he used Perl to build his own language. "This simple thing turned out to be what PHP is today," he said.

From this humble start a powerhouse emerged. Lerdorf estimated that, today, PHP is behind about 50 percent of the mouse clicks on the Internet. "Pretty much every large Internet company [uses] PHP," he states. He points out that Yahoo, Facebook, Zynga, and most all of the world's blogs run on the language. It is almost universally used by Asia e-commerce and social media sites, as well as by many pornography sites.

PHP succeeded because it was uniquely suited to the emerging world of the Web, Lerdorf argued. "The focus wasn't on the language itself, but on the ecosystem," he said. It fit very well with the other components of the then-emerging Web, including what would soon become the world's dominant Web server software, Apache HTTP Server.

 

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