Fast and cheap, the programming language PHP has won small business converts in recent years though critics say one of its biggest selling point -- ease of use -- makes it less robust than some of its competitors.

PHP, short for Hypertext Preprocessor, is now the fifth most-popular coding language in the world, according to TIOBE, the Dutch research firm. Like Sun Microsystem's coding language, Java, PHP is designed for developing Web-based applications. While PHP can be used to power a number of such applications, a small business would likely use it to create a shopping cart, a bulletin board, or an ordering system on its website.

But PHP is considered to be easier to master than the others. Part of the reason is cost. Since PHP is open source, there are no royalties to pay and, since it works on any operating system, a small business could theoretically write applications in PHP for free. (Sun Microsystems recently made Java open source, as well.) In practice, a firm is likely to use an integrated development environment (IDE) that edits, debugs, and analyzes code when writing PHP.

PHP is catching on

Though no one has a definitive number for PHP penetration among small business, Forrester Research pegs it at around nine per cent. Michael Goulde, an analyst with Forrester, says that number is growing and there’s a good reason. “It’s much easier than learning a programming language like Java,” he says. “It’s pretty forgiving.”

InTicketing, a San Rafael, Calif., firm that sells concert tickets for itself and others, has been using PHP for about six years. “We chose it because it’s the most adaptable and fastest language that can be used to build real world, scalable solutions,” says Marc Urbaitel, chief technology officer and co-founder of InTicketing, which has fewer than 100 employees. By “fast,” Urbaitel means it processes faster than other coding languages.

Urbaitel says he uses an IDE product called Zend Studio, which now sells for $300, but aside from that there wasn’t much money to lay down.

Viable alternative to Java

Zend Studio is one of the main sources of income for Zend, a Cupertino, Calif., firm run by Andi Gutmans, one of the founders of PHP. Gutmans says PHP is a viable alternative to Java. “The biggest problem with Java is it’s very complex and development takes a lot longer,” says Gutmans, who adds that Wikipedia, among other Web 2.0 applications, uses PHP.

By contrast, PHP is frequently billed as “easy,” but Goulde cautions that that doesn’t mean that a layman can just jump in and start coding away. “It’s not for someone who had only used FrontPage before,” he says, referring to the Microsoft Web-page creation software.

But what makes PHP “easy” can also make applications written on it perform poorly compared to those written in other programming languages, such as C, C++, C# or Java, Goulde says. “It can lead to bad programming practices,” he says. “Because it will allow faulty scripts to keep running, bugs may be found and erroneous results might occur.”

Gutmans contends that C is actually a bigger cause of bugs than PHP. Still, Urbaitel has used C before and likes PHP better. “I moved over because of the speed,” he says.