The PHP popularity puzzle

Depending on how you measure popularity, PHP is either the comeback kid or continuing a decline that started in 2010

PHP, the venerable dynamic language used for server-side Web development, either is making a big comeback or is in a pronounced state of decline among developers. It all depends on how you look at it.

This month's programming language popularity assessments published by Tiobe and PyPL both star PHP, but for decidedly different reasons. Tiobe's headline is "PHP is regaining ground." PyPL, meanwhile, tells a different story, leading with "PHP's decline continues."

In the Tiobe Programming Community Index, PHP is cited as the fastest climber so far this year: It ranks at 7.186 percent this month, up from 5.546 percent in January. Tiobe rates languages based on how often they turn up in searches on various search engines and sites like Wikipedia and YouTube. Ratings are based on the number of courses, skilled engineers, and third-party vendors pertinent to a specific language. The language ranks fifth in this month's index behind C, Java, Objective-C, and C++; it had been ranked seventh a year ago. "The major driver behind PHP's popularity seems to be the new PHP Zend Framework that was released in September 2012," Tiobe said.

"The rise of PHP reflects what I see what is happening in Web development: PHP is gaining market share in the back-end side of large Web development projects," said Paul Jansen, managing director of Tiobe. "New versions of PHP libraries and frameworks such as the ones from Doctrine and Zend Framework facilitate PHP programs with a better code architecture and thus enable the development of large enterprise systems with PHP."

In contrast, the PyPL Popularity of Programming Language index, which bases its assessment on how often language tutorials are searched on Google, said PHP "is losing ground again," but that it is hard to determine which rival languages are taking advantage of it. While PyPL ranks PHP as No. 2 behind Java, the language's 14.1 percent share for July marks a continued decrease; PyPL has had PHP on a mostly downward trajectory since 2010.

Forrester Research, though, sees life for PHP. "I see more PHP use than the other dynamic languages, excluding JavaScript," Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond said. The company is readying a survey in which 1,583 developers were asked how much time they spend programming in different languages. Twelve percent cited HTML/CSS/JavaScript as their primary language, while only 3 percent said PHP. But 38 percent had no primary language in which they program more than 50 percent of the time.

Hammond takes language popularity assessments like PyPL and Tiobe with a grain of salt. "Popularity is a factor to the algorithm used, and all the algorithms are different. I'll look at the trends over time as a potential indicator of direction, but that's about it."

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