The Business of PHP

    Jules Szemere

    Perhaps an anomaly in the PHP landscape is, despite the massive adoption of PHP as a software development platform, the relatively small ecosystem of commercial software offerings that exist within it. One might easily put this down to PHP being an open source – and largely free – product. People who use a “zero cost” platform generally have little inclination to pay for software that runs on it.

    But as the argument so often goes in the Land of Open Source, we all need to eat and – perhaps failing that – buy iPods and fixed gear ‘cycles. Many of the great software engineering minds tinker on well known projects while getting paid for it. For the rest of us, though, a commercial motive needs to exist somewhere in our day to day activities.

    I’d venture that the majority of professional PHP developers (and I use that term loosely; referring to people who earn a living coding PHP) work with / in some kind of client services entity. That is, building PHP web sites and applications on behalf of a client for a fee.

    (As a side note, I propose that this may be a cause of the PHP community’s unquenchable desire for reinventing the wheel – but I’ll save that for another blog post.)

    Close behind that group would be those developers who build solutions “in-house” for an organization, which are leveraged for that company’s operations and hence commercial goals. I, myself fall into this category.

    Nonetheless, there is a small – and growing – section of the PHP community which focuses on developing proprietary software for the platform. I find their business models, and the challenges they face, fascinating.


    The first great proprietary PHP success story? I’d wager that few PHP developers out there have not heard of (or indeed used) Jelsoft’s vBulletin forum software.

    They’ve been around for five years now and certainly seem to be happily heading off the “for-free” challengers in their space.

    On the face of it, this does seem surprising given that bulletin-board software has been heavily commoditized, and a large number of very mature applications exist.

    Cerberus Helpdesk

    Another mature, proprietary PHP web application, this one dealing with the customer support / helpdesk scenario. This particular category appears to have fewer free competitors, and aims directly to reduce a substantial business expense: Customer support. Easily understandable, then, that people are happy to pay for such an application.

    Applications vs libraries

    There are a plethora of other “full-blown” commercial PHP applications available; turn key solutions that come with installers and generally require little interference from the customer. In contrast I’d like to look at another segment of the software industry: Libraries and components.

    Developers who come from a proprietary platform background – obviously with Windows being an example – are used to a rich and diverse ecosystem of pre-built components to use in their applications.

    Many of these are rather pricey and well out of reach of lower end developers and hobbyists. It’s long been an advantage in the PHP community that an enormous amount of functionality that one might need to pay for within, say, the Microsoft ASP platform, is available free and open source in the PHP variety.

    This has, however, led to very limited uptake of the manufacturing of proprietary PHP components and means that if you need an obscure middleware problem solved, you might well be on your own. Open Source as a community tends to solve only common problems.

    I did, however, manage to find two proprietary PHP libraries:


    JpGraph – being largely the definitive graphing library for PHP – is offered in an open source guise for non-commercial use, but requires payment of a license fee for any kind of commercial use.

    PHP AdWords API Lib

    This is an interesting one; an enterprising fellow, Georgi Mirchev, anticipated the demand that Google’s AdWords API release would create and was first-to-market with a well documented, feature complete implementation of their web services API in PHP.

    One has to expect, though, that an open source clone can’t be far away in such a heavily demanded application.

    On source code protection

    It’s very interesting to note that the major players in proprietary PHP applications do not encode or obfuscate their source code.

    Admittedly the available options for doing so are limited at best, but it proves that licensing and protecting intellectual property do not have to be a hindrance to a viable business.

    I’d wager that most Microsoft-centric developers would run to the hills in fear of providing their entire source code to customers!

    So who out there uses proprietary PHP software? And who among you develop and sell such software?