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How PHP Has Changed: From Personal Tool to Global Phenomenon

PHP is one of the most recognizable scripting languages on the internet, and its acronym, if not its purpose, is known even to those who do not do regular work on the web. The language, used primarily to build upon webpages written in HTML, was originally created by Rasmus Lerdorf, a professional programmer who designed it as a personal tool to improve his website. Now, PHP is used by over 83% of the websites on the net, according to research done by w3techs. How did a humble scripting language grow from single-site usage to the dominant scripting language of the web? In this article, we will explore the many improvements PHP underwent and the offerings it brought to the internet as a whole.

The Rise of a New Language

In 1995, Greenland-born Danish programmer Rasmus Lerdorf created a set of C-based tools that he called Personal Home Page Tools. As the name might suggest, the initial version of PHP was used to improve and maintain Lerdorf’s personal home page. He released these tools to others via a Usenet group that has been archived by Google Groups and is maintained to this day. As it turns out, PHP tools filled gaps that many web developers had encountered in designing and maintaining webpages solely with HTML and existing scripting languages. PHP spread through the web rapidly, and Lerdorf continued to add to the tools following his own web development needs and requests made by other users of the tools. In time, the capabilities of PHP grew, and Lerdorf found himself assembling a development team to release PHP 2 in 1997.

Over time, PHP grew into a language of its own. Its natural growth helped it answer many problems very specifically, but the tradeoff was that its organization was not as clean as many formally-created programming languages. Lerdorf claimed in multiple interviews that he had never intended to make a language at all and that he considered himself unprepared for the creation of a language. Nonetheless, PHP emerged and has had continual, widespread use since its launch.

PHP’s Rapid Evolution

Looking at feature summaries of the various versions of PHP is the web development equivalent of an epic. PHP snowballed from a tiny toolset into a powerhouse of development flexibility used by websites like Facebook and Wikipedia alongside personal blogs and small-town homepages. This evolution, however, warrants a more detailed highlight, especially since each individual improvement made to the language affects such an incredible collection of sites on the web.

Of course, the first notable step in PHP’s growth was the release of PHP 2 (officially named PHP/FI 2.0.) PHP 2 marked the recognition that PHP tools needed to become something more than just a simple tool. Lerdorf, baffled by the success of his tools, made the decision to move PHP into becoming a proper language.

PHP 2 quickly advanced to the 3.0 stage with the addition of two more developers, making the development effort go from a solo undertaking to a team project. 3.0 also represented a major overhaul for PHP, with the foundational pieces of the language being rewritten and restructured to accommodate future growth and fix issues that had not been predicted at the time of the original launch.

The next major release after 3.0 would not come for almost two years. 4.0, though, brought with it a powerful addition in the form of an engine known as Zend. Zend itself is now a major open source project with a world-class company stimulating its growth and development. Zend Technologies now offers numerous PHP solutions, training, conferences, and more, but it all started with PHP 4.0.

PHP 5.0 marked further evolution of Zend alongside PHP, but it also marked the longest running full-version of PHP yet. 5.0 would be in service, with multiple subsequent updates, from mid-2004 all the way until the end of next year. 5.0 will finally be retired from active support on the 31st of December, 2018. During its long run, however, it brought with it massive performance improvements, drastically improved support for object-oriented programming, and important extensions and tools for facilitating more widespread use of the language. PHP 5.0 enticed a number of developers to create PHP interpreters for use on most major operating systems as well.

PHP 5.0’s long reign wasn’t only because of its incredible development support, though. An ill-fated version of PHP, PHP 6.0, was released only to be discontinued shortly afterward due to poor reception by development communities at large. The problem that plagued PHP 6.0 largely centered around support for Unicode. Integrating Unicode support proved more difficult than predicted, and this resulted in the overall failure of the 6.0 project. Successful features, however, were rolled from 6.0 into 5.3 and 5.4 versions of PHP 5.

The most recent version of PHP, PHP 7.0, represents an incredible improvement over PHP 5 in many areas. At first, PHP 7.0 was referred to as “PHP next generation” because its proposed features were so significant. Introducing major reworks to the language and the integration of many modern features from newer languages, 7.0 is receiving active support alongside 5.0, and will not become the sole active major version of PHP until 2019.

PHP represents one of the most widespread and colorful pieces of the continually-evolving mosaic that is the web. Understanding PHP is absolutely key to ensuring you have every option at your fingertips in building your website.

If you’d like a better understanding of how you can implement PHP or PHP-based tools, contact today!


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