PHP is one of the most successful programming languages in the history of the Web. Thanks to its
great power, flexibility and short learning curve, its popularity is growing daily. PHP 5, the next major version of PHP, is almost ready for production use and was one main topics on the conference. It promises a lot of new features and improvements, along with some unavoidable backwards-compatibility issues. Because of the importance of this upgrade there were quite a few sessions about PHP 5, and of course it was one of the main topics of discussion during the breaks.
In addition to a huge number of sessions about the changes to the language itself, the audience got the opportunity to dig deeper into the core of PHP. Many of the speakers were core PHP developers, and the sessions on how the Zend Engine (the inner core of PHP) works gave an interesting look under the surface that you won't find on the Web.
One of the most exciting novelties I saw at the conference was PIMP, a new graphic extension for PHP 5 meant to replace GD as the main image manipulation tool for PHP. Its author, Pierre-Alain Joye, gave an interesting demonstration of its capabilities. Even though PIMP is still experimental and unstable, its performance and nice API are really impressive. PIMP will certainly be an improvement compared to GD, which is quite buggy and has caused a lot of headaches over the last few years.
Another interesting session was about SQLite, a new database extension in PHP 5. SQLite doesn't use a daemon like MySQL, but communicates directly with the filesystem. That makes it a fast and agile tool for tasks like reading content for a Web site, but writing data is relatively slow because it depends on the limited performance of the hard disk.
Additionally, John Coggeshall gave a lecture about his Tidy extension. Tidy is a nice tool that can be used to clean up HTML. Its PHP extension enables developers to fix their markup, save bandwidth, and to do many other neat things like getting all the links from a document without using regular expressions.
On the day before the actual conference there were two whole-day Power Workshops. These lectures had much more depth then the regular sessions and lasted long enough to handle larger topics like PEAR and XML handling. I attended the excellent "XML in PHP 5" workshop by Christian Stocker. The XML support in PHP 5 has been almost totally rewritten from scratch and is now based on GNOME's libxml2 library. Finally there is full support for W3C's DOM and better SAX and XSLT support as well. One of the new PHP 5 extensions is SimpleXML, which was created to read and write XML in an easy manner.
Since this is one of the few developer conferences in Europe it was a unique opportunity for those developers who live on this side of the Atlantic to meet their peers and improve their programming skills. This conference was smaller than its sister conference in Frankfurt, which had more than 400 participants, but with about 250 attendees the audience grew by 25% since last year, so I'd consider the conference a success.
The audience was a nice reflection of the vivid PHP community, from open source hackers and freelance developers to IT managers of Fortune 500 companies. The atmosphere at the conference was relaxed and friendly and it was a great opportunity to interact with fellow developers from all over the world.
The exhibition that accompanied the conference was very small and not solely reserved for the sponsors. Of course companies like Zend and PDFlib took part, but there were also some open source projects present. The PEAR booth got a lot of attention. PEAR (PHP Extension and Application Repository) is inspired by Perl and is essentially a collection and distribution system of reusable open source classes. There were a number of other promising open source projects present at the exhibition: phpPeanuts (an object-oriented framework for business applications), Achievo (a project management tool), and an editor called Weaverslave.
Of course there were a couple of things I didn't like about the conference. Most sessions were well-prepared and well-presented, but with such a large number of sessions it was inevitable that some were not. Additionally, most lectures were focused on more experienced developers and not very easy to
understand for beginners. Serious and high-level topics are generally not a bad thing, and since most attendees were professional developers it worked out just fine, but it didn't make the conference very attractive to novices, and since a relatively short learning curve is one of PHP's main advantages, there should have been more attention paid to beginners.
I had a great time at the conference and met a lot of interesting people who share my passion for PHP and open source. After three days of PHPing I came home with a lot of new ideas and knowledge, which is, after all, what conferences are all about.
Copyright by Filip de Waard, 2004.