Interview – PHP-GTK’s Andrei Zmievski

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Andrei Zmievski is a man of many talents. Although he is best known for his contributions to the PHP-GTK and Smarty Template Engine projects, his interests range as far afield as history and linguistics. The PHP community is lucky to have kept his attention for this long!

In this exclusive interview, Andrei tells us what drew him to PHP and what plans he has for the future.

Beginnings

SP: Firstly, can you tell us a little about your background? What originally got you into software development?

AZ: I am originally from Uzbekistan, been living in the USA for the past 10 years. I started programming when I was 9 or 10, first on programmable calculators, and then on bigger and better machines. I have to credit my parents with recognizing and supporting my interests in this area, buying me books, magazines, and even computers.

SP: When did you first come across PHP, and what was it that "got you hooked"?

AZ: PHP first appeared on my horizon some time in 1997. At work we purchased Apache StrongHold package and it came with PHP 2 and some documentation for it. Initially, it seemed a simple curiousity because our systems were all written in a different, proprietary 3rd party language. But at the beginning of 1998 we started switching all our products to PHP, because it proved to be more familiar to people with background in C and Perl, more flexible, with pretty good support from the community, but most importantly, it was free of licensing costs. Personally, I liked that it came with a fairly good and easy to use API. These reasons remain PHP’s strengths to this day.

On PHP

SP: Are you still actively involved in the PHP project?

AZ: Yes, although I took a hiatus recently. After 3 years I needed a little break from the barrage of mailing list messages, bugs, and other similar things. I am still not subscribed to the lists, rather I monitor them through the Web interface. This is a bit of a transitional period for me, but I expect to be back in the saddle by the end of summer.

SP: What’s your opinion of recent changes to PHP, like register_globals off in 4.2.0, and the new pre-defined variables in 4.1.0?

AZ: I think it is a step in the right direction. These changes make PHP more consistent and secure at the same time.

SP: Do you think PHP has reached maturity? What further big enhancements to security do you see coming?

AZ: How does one define maturity in this field? Is it the number of programs written with the language? The number of libraries available for it? The amount of documentation and tutorials it has? If so, then PHP passes the mark easily.

As far as security, the biggest thing would be overhauling the safe mode as a basic sandbox mechanism.

SP: Where does PHP stand in the light of Microsoft’s .NET?

AZ: .NET is a fairly interesting technology, and I especially like its class library. However, I do not see what extraordinary benefits it could offer PHP. For one, .NET doesn’t yet play nicely with loosely typed languages. And then there is the question of all those extensions that PHP relies on. Having PHP be a fully-fledged .NET language would require a lot of investment of time and effort with little potential payoff.

That said, there is already a dotnet extension available that lets you instantiate .NET objects and invoke methods on them (on Win32 platforms only so far).

On Smarty

SP: On Smarty and general separation of coding logic from content, do you feel that PHP has solutions that satisfy both PHP coders and Web designers?

AZ: Yes.

SP: What else would like, or are you planning to do with Smarty?

AZ: Make it more modular, more lightweight, so that only necessary pieces are loaded for each stage. Also I’d like to rework the API and the language to be more consistent and easier to use, but we have to be aware of the backward compatibility. The documentation could stand to be improved, of course, but I feel that this task is best left to the community of Smarty users.

SP: One of PHP’s disadvantages is the sheer number of different approaches to programming it encompasses, each backed with it’s own Open Source project (for example, Smarty vs. FastTemplate, if you’ll excuse the comparison). Do you feel the Pear library is ready to deliver a standard application framework for PHP? Is there an alternative project you feel should be endorsed by the PHP group?

AZ: First of all, PHP group is not in the business of endorsing projects or products.

Secondly, PEAR has made great strides in the last few months and with the 4.3.0 release of PHP it will finally be possible to transparently download and install whatever libraries you wish. But PEAR is not an application framework, rather it is a collection of components, some of them serving the same purpose, that can help you rapidly develop your applications.

Thirdly, "the sheer number of different approaches" seems to be an intrinsic property of open source development, and not necessarily a deleterious one.

SP: Apart from those you’re been involved in, which Open Source projects written in PHP have impressed you most?

AZ: Gallery – the online photo album software. Swwwing – a groupware tool made by a company in Denmark. JPGraph – a Graph drawing library. And then there is a web server written in PHP

Andrei and PHP-GTK

SP: How did you become principal developer of PHP-GTK? What was it like to work on this project, and how long did it take?

AZ: I guess I was the only one crazy enough to work on it. I started writing initial code in September of 2000 and the first release was made on March 1, 2001. Working on it was a lot of fun — figuring out whether PHP could handle bindings to such a toolkit and discovering and fixing some deficiencies in PHP along the way. I firmly believe that PHP is a better project because of PHP-GTK.

SP: PHP-GTK allows developers to write cross-platform, windowed applications for users to run right on their desktops. What can PHP-GTK do for developers experienced in building Websites in PHP?

AZ: The main thing it gives them is yet another way to control the backend system, unencumbered by the interface limitations imposed by HTML and the browser. Such features as drag-n-drop, grids, tree views, etc. are much more powerful than their in-browser counteparts and can be a boon to productivity.

SP: How does PHP-GTK even the playing field with Perl, C, Tk, etc.?

AZ: I have received email from people who say they are really glad to have found PHP-GTK, because now they can use their favorite language to build solutions on the client side, and that otherwise they would have had to resort to Java or something similar. To me it means that PHP-GTK is filling a much needed niche.

SP: How would you describe the current state PHP-GTK project? What would you like to see added?

AZ: Currently there is not much development being done, mainly bugfixes. I am waiting for my schedule to clear up a bit so that I can start on PHP-GTK 2 which will support Gtk+ 2 and rely on the new version of Zend Engine which fixes a lot of annoyances.

But the documentation is still a work in progress. About half the classes are documented, and it’s a bit slow going, probably because writing the documentation properly requires understanding of PHP, C, and Gtk+. Hopefully, there will be more people interested in helping with writing docs.

SP: Do you see any common ground between PHP-GTK and the .NET client side framework? Do you foresee PHP-GTK being the client side of a future PHP.NET language?

AZ: No, .NET already includes its own interface to GUI systems, called WinForms. On Windows, WinForms relies on GDI and other libraries, and on Linux it uses Gtk+ already (in the Mono project).

SP: With many thousands of experienced PHP Web developers out there, are there any plans to encourage them to make use of PHP-GTK? And will we see a PHP-GTK competition or Coding Contest (similar to this one for PHP) any time soon?

AZ: I would love for more people to know about PHP-GTK and to start using it, but I’m only one person and I would rather dedicate my available time to improving PHP-GTK technically. Besides I’m not a very good marketolog.

Open source projects have self-organizing communities, and hopefully the same thing is happening with this one. If you have any ideas on how to encourage developers to use PHP-GTK, let them be heard on the php-gtk-general mailing list.

Coding competition? By all means!

SP: You also developed PHP’s WDDX extension. Is there a common theme between this and PHP-GTK? Are there plans for a standard interface between PHP-GTK applications and PHP-enabled Websites?

AZ: No, the extensions don’t really have much in common, but I guess WDDX could be used as a data exchange protocol between client side PHP-GTK program and its counterpart on the server side. I would rather not tie PHP-GTK to any specific interface. The developers are already aware of a need for something like that (not just for PHP-GTK). SRM and sockets extension are probably partly due to this need.

SP: What use have you made of PHP-GTK yourself?

AZ: You mean other than speaking about it at the conferences? Oh, I’ve made a little app that manages my diary on advogato.org. That’s about it.

SP: If one of SitePoint’s members developed a "killer app", is PHP-GTK capable of putting it on every desktop?

AZ: Not literally, which is one of the shortcomings. Currently, there is no easy way to distribute applications — for PHP-GTK apps there is nothing as easy as running setup.exe or installing an RPM package. Although I think Simon Wheeler has done some interesting work in this area.

That aside, I think PHP-GTK can provide a good platform for your "killer app", especially with the next version that I have in mind.

Andrei’s Plans

SP: On your Website at http://gravitonic.com/, you quote John Burroughs:

"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see."

With everything you’re involved in, one question begs to be asked: how do you find the time?

AZ: With some difficulty, lately. Usually I try and make a schedule for the week, setting aside time for exercise, programming, reading, fun, housework, and other miscellanea. But by nature I am a very curious person and I frequently end up getting interested in and working on several things at once, although there are times when I am so far "in the zone" that I hardly notice the passage of time. Hence the quote.

SP: You’re the Research and Development director at ispi, a news publishing Application Service Provider (ASP). A few years ago ASPs were hailed as the successors to ISPs. How far do you think that’s become a reality, and what do you see as the future for ASPs?

AZ: ISPs are in no danger. A lot of people simply want connectivity. ASPs might have siphoned business customers away from ISPs, but that is a win-win situation: businesses get better services with ASPs, and ISPs can concentrate on what they do best.

The future for ASPs? Vertical markets and orientation towards local (city or neighborhood-level) communities.

SP: In general, what do you see coming on Internet, both in terms of technology and how businesses and individuals use it?

AZ: If I knew the answer to that, I’d be logging into my brokerage account and doing some trading, if you know what I mean. But seriously, I’d just like to quote Alan Kay, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

SP: In the Zend Hall of Fame, you’re quoted as saying:

"I’m impressed by what mod_perl can do, and I’d like to make PHP jump through the same kind of hoop, so that it would be possible to write any sort of Apache handlers in straight PHP code,"

Are we likely to see this happen? What will this allow developers to do with PHP?

AZ: I have not heard of anyone working on this yet, but I think this would be a very interesting project. Especially with Apache 2 coming around. You would basically be able to write Apache modules in PHP: rewrite URIs, perform authentication based on any kind of scheme PHP supports, filter the input and output of the web server, manipulate headers, implement new protocols, and so on.

SP: What does the future hold for you? What are you working on now?

AZ: I am doing a bit more learning: C#, Scheme, compiler technology, speech and language processing, theories of investment and markets, history of western culture. My reading booklist is as long as my arm. And some time sooner than later I would also like to go back to school for a master’s degree in linguistics. And win the lottery.

I’d like to thank Andrei for taking the time to answer the SitePoint Community’s questions!

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