Don't confuse popular or easiest with best

I recently bumped into someone who proclaimed PHP as the greatest language for web development and he had zero desire to learn another framework, especially not Ruby on Rails.

I, for one, couldn’t care less if you used Ruby or Rails, Python or Django, C# or ASP.NET. I do care that you would a) only stick with what you know and b) choose PHP.

For the former, it’s simple - you should assume you simply don’t know everything there is to know and continually try to better yourself. If you haven’t reached that conclusion yet, the book The Passionate Programmer will surely help.

For the latter, hmm, PHP eh?

I’ve done PHP development as recently as last year but to read into more of a PHP’ers point of view, I recently read a blog post named PHP is much better than what you think.

In it, the author, Fabien Potencier, sounds just like the person I mentioned earlier. The opening paragraphs calls PHP the easiest, most popular and quickest language. All great reasons to pick one language over another. So let’s break this down.

The Language

PHP is old but instead of a language that moves forward with its syntax, PHP chooses to build on top of the old cruft and never clears away the cobwebs. Its syntax coherence is below most other languages. A blog titled PHP: a fractal of bad design says it better than anyone else:

  • PHP is full of surprises: mysql_real_escape_string, E_ALL
  • PHP is inconsistent: strpos, str_rot13
  • PHP requires boilerplate: error-checking around C API calls, ===
  • PHP is flaky: ==, foreach ($foo as &$bar)
  • PHP is opaque: no stack traces by default or for fatals, complex error reporting

Consistency is the key to discovering a new language, framework or API. One of the key arguments for PHP is that it’s easy. I don’t see how inconsistency is easy. From the same article:

  • Underscore versus not: strpos/str_rot13, php_uname/phpversion, base64_encode/urlencode, gettype/get_class
  • “to” versus 2: ascii2ebcdic, bin2hex, deg2rad, strtolower, strtotime
  • Object+verb versus verb+object: base64_decode, str_shuffle, var_dump versus create_function, recode_string
  • Argument order: array_filter($input, $callback) versus array_map($callback, $input), strpos($haystack, $needle) versus array_search($needle, $haystack)
  • Prefix confusion: usleep versus microtime
  • Case insensitive functions vary on where the i goes in the name.
  • About half the array functions actually start with array_. The others do not.
  • htmlentities and html_entity_decode are inverses of each other, with completely different naming conventions.

Seriously read through that entire article, it’s a great read.

The Ecosystem

The author mentions git but git is everywhere. Even Microsoft uses. it. now.

It’s great to see PHP has a dependency manager but so does everyone else. The fact that you have one and it works decently does not mean it’s better than another language or implementation. At this point, not having a dependency manager is a problem. All modern frameworks have them including RubyGems, Python PyPI, Node Package Manager (NPM), Microsoft NuGet, etc.

I’m not sure how the author judges that Composer is better than other package managers. Is it because it resolves dependencies or has over 2400 packages? I don’t know. The other managers do handle dependencies as well and the package counts as of today are:

  • Composer at 2,454
  • RubyGems at 42,278
  • PyPI at 22,860
  • NuGet at 7,792

Under the original article, the author calls this community collaboration but really he’s making a point about the number of packages available in PHP. Given the numbers, I expected a lot more from PHP given the number of sites online and the years its been in service.

The Community

To me, the community is not about sharing code but more about the people themselves. The developers make the community because they strive to make everything better. They don’t sit in their own echo chambers and pat each other on the back, talking about how great this is about their preferred language or that is about their favorite framework. They see the shortcomings and they strive to address them while acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses.

The main issue I see with PHP but also with some other communities is the lack of sharing. Not just code but technical advise, support and overall camaraderie. Some communities are getting better at it. Having spent years in the Microsoft and Java ecosystems, I’ve seen it shape up better in Microsoft but that’s because they have evangelists running around doing their job. Java’s “ok” but Oracle hasn’t helped at all, especially given recent lawsuits and Hudson vs Jenkins.

The JavaScript community is an interesting one and the developers within it range from copy/paste scripters to those that thrive on functional programming who have dived deep into CoffeeScript or Dart to know which OOP parts suck compared to, say, LiveScript.

That wide variety of developers makes it harder to polarize the community as a whole and makes it difficult for one great programmer to recognize another. It’s similar to PHP.


The language is not easy to learn if it’s inconsistent. The community around your language and framework really matters; it allows you to learn and grow to become a passionate programmer.

Ultimately, I suggest that all developers should learn more than one language and framework. Get out your bubble and expand your horizon.

You can then choose the right language and the right platform for the right problem. Just as long as it’s not PHP.