Will PHP be dead in the future

IPC interview with Marcel Normann

Marcel Normann, Head of Software Development at WhereGroup in Bonn, sheds light on a range of current and historical data on the popularity of PHP and its challengers in his IPC session. Where do these changing trends come from and what do they mean for me as a developer? We asked Marcel Normann a few questions about this exciting topic.

Your IPC session deals with the future meaning of PHP. According to a report by W3Techs, 79% of all server-side websites use PHP. Nevertheless, the decline of the language is invoked again and again. In your opinion, why is it that PHP is repeatedly declared dead?

Marcel Normann: Behind this widespread use are mostly out-of-the-box products such as blogs and online shops with little or no development effort. Developers are interested in the future of PHP because they want to earn a living with their knowledge, and the sheer number of PHP installations doesn't help.

The urge to declare PHP dead is certainly due to several reasons: Often the critics of “naked” PHP, for example, are simply right. But they overlook the fact that the emergence of first-class frameworks such as Symfony or Laravel mean that their criticism often comes to nothing. In my opinion, however, the changed cultural environment is more problematic: PHP used to be a trendsetter itself for many years, but now it is hardly noticed by the development community. One or the other confuses this silence with the quiet of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, there are hardly any reliable numbers that allow a valid statement about the state of PHP. The few numbers that exist have indeed shown a noticeable downward trend for PHP for a number of years.

Developers: What are the advantages of PHP compared to other programming languages?

Marcel Normann: When we talk about bare PHP, then the flat learning curve must be emphasized: If you have managed to have your HTML pages delivered by an Apache, you only have to take a very small step to accommodate the first line of code. In addition to its widespread use on shared hosts, this is exactly what led to the rapid expansion of PHP 20 years ago. Both are hardly relevant nowadays.

But even today the following applies when working with PHP frameworks: When in doubt, they are easier to learn, debug and operate; definitely compared to the enterprise competition.

The longevity of PHP code is remarkable: Code from the year 2000 could be kept running for 18 years with manageable changes; more complex changes were only due with the discontinuation of the mysql_ functions in PHP7. And if we look towards NodeJS, I like the careful and defensive handling of dependencies on the PHP side. Certainly less a question of technology than of culture.

Developer: How do you see the future of PHP? PHP 8.0 is in the starting blocks - what can we expect from the new version?

Marcel Normann: Even if, as mentioned, the numbers show a downward trend: I do not see a dramatic decline in PHP. The market share of PHP in the development market will certainly decrease noticeably, but at a relatively high level. It is possible that this trend will increasingly strengthen itself, but there is no relevant experience on this.

I do not expect any significant change in market position from PHP 8.0. Improved performance and cautious BC breaks will primarily keep existing developers in line; with asynchronous workloads, years of delay will only bring you on par with the competition. However, the Foreign Function Interface could be exciting: In the medium term, innovations in PHP may come more quickly via this line.

Developer: How do you observe the young programmers? Does PHP still have the necessary relevance or are the young developers only focusing on more modern and “cooler” programming languages?

PHP does not seem to play a role in university training, more so in dual training.

Marcel Normann: PHP does not seem to play a role in university training, more so in dual training. In the past, this was compensated for by our own development projects, but today these are often in the area of ​​SPAs, often with NodeJS. Otherwise, the preferred languages ​​are not that trendy: Python, C # and Java have also been some years or even decades under their belt.

The good news is that even so, nobody has any problems familiarizing themselves with PHP or frameworks based on it. But then it is no longer the love wedding that it used to be. You just accept it because other parameters are right.

Developer: How does the WhereGroup use PHP? What role does language play in your development work?

Marcel Normann: WhereGroup grew up with PHP and until recently it was our only server-side language. Four years ago we moved away from native development and switched to Symfony completely. A decision that we haven't regretted to this day.

Outside of PHP, we have been experiencing a trend towards Python for some time, triggered by development for QGIS. Since this language is very widespread in our GeoIT industry, it will probably gain a place with us in the long term. Due to new projects in the area of ​​large corporations and authorities, we are currently faced with the decision to build up competencies in the area of ​​JVM that dominates the market there. Certainly a difficult step for a company with a background in scripting, but a necessary one.

So you can say that it looks like in the rest of the world: The proportion of PHP is falling at a high level, but it cannot be said to be disappearing.

Developer: What do you personally wish for PHP in the future?

Marcel Normann: I would like the PHP developers to deal with their programming language in a reflective way. Those who can clearly state the advantages and disadvantages of the competition can then weight them for themselves (and their customers) and assert their own position.

I wish from PHP itself that I can develop it again in a maintainable manner without frameworks with a clear conscience. To do this, the language would have to be “opinionioated” much more strongly. Here, Go has demonstrated that by forcing simplicity, standards and largely avoiding third-party components, you hit a nerve with developers. The building blocks for this are practically all available in the PHP ecosystem. What it takes is the courage to push it and a starting shot that goes beyond a normal major release. P ++ could have been this starting signal; I am curious to see how the discussion will continue after his quick funeral.

Developer: Thank you for this interview!

Marcel Normann is head of software development at WhereGroup in Bonn. The company offers software services in the GeoIT area for large companies and authorities. Marcel has been working as a developer since 1999, including PHP for over 15 years. He spends his free time away from computers with beekeeping, jogging and sporadic fire-fighting activities.