May 23, 2002

Zend makes money by making PHP easier to use

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Zend calls itself "The PHP Company." It's making enough money to cover costs and the future looks bright, according to CTO Zeev Suraski, but other PHP developers have mixed feelings about the way Zend interacts with those who work on the Open
version of PHP. For example, Chris Cornutt, webmaster of says, "Zend is responsible for a lot of the functionality of PHP, but lots of people think they've stepped over the line with prices and self-promotion."

No one denies Zend's coding prowess or that Zeev is right up there in the top ranks of PHP developers. Even though he's now a corporate CTO, he still codes. "I don't just sit in a room and read magazines," he says, and points out that Zend's commercialization of PHP -- or at least of its own PHP tools -- isn't getting as much heat from Free Software believers as it did when the company was founded back in 1999. "The last half year or so," Zeev says, "flak from ardent Free Software people has died down."

A fast foray into the PHP IRC channel on the Open Projects Network brings out a series of comments about Zend like, "They charge too much money for their products," but no one mentions licensing problems. The reality of PHP is, of course, that Zend's proprietary products are not needed to develop in it.

Indeed, OSDN's own Jay Luker, who maintains the (PHP) code behind and, does not use Zend Studio or other proprietary PHP development tools.

But some developers prefer to use packaged software development tools as much as possible, including the ones Zend sells for PHP. Zend's site contains a list of case studies that includes one about OSDN's freshmeat, which also runs on PHP. Interestingly, these case studies seem devoted to PHP use in general rather than to Zend customers in particular. You can look at this as good for PHP or you can look at it as Chris Cornutt does, as an attempt to make Zend synonymous with PHP in some users' eyes. "I mean, these days, if someone is looking for 'corporate PHP' they end up with Zend," Chris says.

Zeev isn't shy about Zend's desire to make money, but balances it with his and his coworkers' desire to spread PHP use even in ways that don't directly benefit Zend. He says, "We basically have two directions in which the company goes. One is the Open Source direction, the PHP, where we improve the platform. The second direction, the one that actually makes the money, is selling
PHP-based software, which is usually not Open Source, to companies that have adopted the Open Source but need to go in directions PHP doesn't provide."

Zend is profiting in part by helping proprietary developers use PHP. "One [Zend] application encodes PHP so you can distribute PHP apps without disclosing the source code," Zeev says. In fact, he points out, "This was the product that launched Zend. We got emails from people who wanted to build apps with PHP and make money." He says the company went along with (and profited from) this idea partly because "we believe personally that PHP should be strong everywhere, not just in the Open Source world. We want it to become a very strong Web platform."

This tactic seems to be succeeding. According to Zend's PR people, "PHP has surpassed Microsoft's once-dominant Active Server Pages (ASP) technology and continues to boom." Another bit of Zend PR tells us PHP now powers more than 9 million Web sites and has more than 750,000 users worldwide.

Zeev is happy about this, because at least some corporate-level PHP developers are using Zend tools. He admits that "the first version of Zend studio wasn't very good, so we released a new version [2.0] a few months ago. It understands all the PHP code and functions, and gives you code completion at a very high level."

Now Version 2.5 is is due for release "in a few weeks." Zeev says. "It makes PHP much more enjoyable to work with." He knows programming tools are a very intimate thing, being a programmer himself, and says he understands other programmers' reluctance to move from the ones they know and love to something new unless it offers them a significantly better experience or -- especially in a commercial "production" environment -- significantly greater speed.

In some ways, all this is somewhat like carpentry. Yes, you can build a house with nothing but hand tools, and probably do a more elegant job than with power tools, but there is no way you can put out enough work per day with hand tools to earn a living (at least in the developed world) without commercial-grade power tools, even though they can be costly to buy and maintain.

Zend is openly going after top-end businesses, not small-time webmasters, with its PHP equivalents of a carpenter's truckful of power saws, drills and planes. Zeev speaks joyfully of a $300,000 deal Zend made recently, which is obviously enough to build the PHP equivalent of an entire series of apartment complexes, not just one house.

When Zend started, Zeev says, "The big question was whether people -- developers that is -- were going to buy tools for money, but if the tool saves them time and make their life easier, they don't mind spending money on it."

Okay, it all sounds nice. This pattern seems to be working for Zend, which Zeev says has recently made "some of the biggest deals in PHP history." But can other Open Source developers apply it? Is it fair to the Open Source community that helped develop the original code base the proprietary tools make easier/faster/cheaper to use? Is this a sustainable business model or will Free Software tools for PHP come along that do at least as good a job as the proprietary ones, a la GCC and the commercial compilers it (for all practical purposes) replaced?

I don't know the answers to these questions. Do you?


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