This article was published on February 27, 2024

Why PHP continues to be a popular but divisive programming language

The good, the bad, and how the future looks for PHP users and developers

Why PHP continues to be a popular but divisive programming language

One thing you can say for PHP is that it’s persistent. Like many long-standing programming languages, it’s often maligned by developers who would like to see a shift to newer candidates, yet it also maintains many supporters and practitioners, serving as a reminder of C++ inventor Bjarne Stroustrup’s wise words:

There are only two kinds of languages: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.

First created in 1993 to enhance the webpage of programmer Rasmus Lerdorf, PHP didn’t originate as a new programming language and as such it developed organically. It has continued to adapt across its three decades of existence and even the name PHP has evolved, coming to stand for hypertext preprocessor rather than the original meaning, personal home page.

And while the web has changed a lot in 30-plus years, PHP has persisted along with it and continues to be actively supported and regularly updated. The most recent version, 8.3, arrived late last year as the latest in a string of annual releases.

Where developers have run up against limitations of PHP, they have successfully found workarounds. The most famous example being Facebook’s team, who had to find a way to adapt PHP to the dramatic scaling of their social network from thousands of users to millions, tens of millions, and then billions. Facebook’s development team created their own dialect of PHP to soothe the growing pains and work at scale.

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To this day, Facebook continues to use PHP, as does Microsoft, Etsy, WordPress, MailChimp and Wikipedia. In fact, according to W3Techs,

PHP is used by 76.5% of all the websites whose server-side programming language we know.

Alternatives such as, Ruby, Java, and JavaScript don’t even come close to this share of the market. While these rival languages see a higher frequency of use in high-traffic websites, PHP is still the dominant language across more than 60% of the world’s top 1,000 websites.

Though these figures continue to assert PHP’s dominance over server-side scripting, it is starting to see a gentle decline. But, when a language is used across more than three-quarters of the web, even a trending shift away from its use would take years to affect the rankings.

And so, PHP maintains its relevance through widespread use, but there are other reasons for its continued popularity. It’s open source, and many years of use means there is an extensive community and comprehensive body of resources to support developers in its use and troubleshooting. It’s also relatively easy to learn and, for many developers, their first foray into web programming will have involved PHP.

However, being an old, accessible language can have its disadvantages too. With inexperienced users able to cobble together websites using old tutorials and a little bit of knowledge (a dangerous thing), you’re bound to see issues, particularly with site security. And so, PHP sites continue to be a target of hackers hoping to hit upon an old, unsupported version.

Worryingly, according to WordPress stats, the majority (more than 44%) of its sites are using version 7.1 of PHP, for which support ended in 2019. This is one of the most common complaints levelled against PHP, along with the inconsistencies in the language due to its organic development.

If you’re working with PHP, you need to be keeping up with the new releases so as not to contribute to this souring of its reputation. You would also want to learn to work with its supporting frameworks, such as Laravel and Symfony. Indeed, many job postings for PHP developers will ask for skills in both.

For example, this post seeking a lead PHP developer in Frankfurt specifically asks for knowledge of PHP versions from 8 onwards. Another developer role at IT consultancy CGI expects its PHP programmer to work with Symfony and Drupal, a content management system that’s written in PHP.

Jobs in PHP continue to be relevant and will be as long as it remains among the world’s most-used programming languages. And, despite some loud detractors, most developers admire PHP. In the most recent annual survey from Stack Overflow, PHP was identified as highly “admired” by respondents, meaning those who work with PHP would like to continue to do so.

And for those who stay abreast of the latest in PHP, it’s becoming used more and more in progressive web applications, the Internet of Things, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning, the fastest-growing sector in tech right now. This flexibility and versatility mean PHP developers can enjoy variety in their work, especially if they find a role working across many projects such as this one with German digital agency Denkwerk, one of 2024’s ‘Great Places to Work’.

Articles signalling — or even calling for — PHP’s death knell have a history almost as long as the language itself. Nevertheless, PHP persists. It dominates our web experience and continues to be picked up and enjoyed by new generations of developers.

The revised acronym assigned to the personal home page code that became a scripting language doesn’t quite fit — perhaps it should be known as persistent hypertext pre-processor.

For more job opportunities across the tech industry and beyond, check out the House of Talent job board today

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