FutureProgrammingTechnologyWeb Development

and now for something completely different

In the our 20-odd years with PHP, there have always been people attempting to work a step or two ahead of where the language was at the time. Working with PHP4 in the early 2000s, when a very elementary Java-derived object model was grafted on the language, people attempted to write proper Java without the guardrails. Objects are the sort of thing that, if your language doesn’t give you, you will probably try to invent, as people before that with PHP3.

PHP5 brought the gradual strengthening of the language’s object model, as well as dynamic “magic methods” which people ran wild with in the late 2000s, stretching things every which way. By the early 2010s the ecosystem had sobered up and begun to build serious structures around it. The language got a proper package manager in Composer, and in playing by a set of community-established conventions, one could draw upon vast resources for free. Many of us did, and over the lifespan of PHP5, the language completed a transformation from its hobbyist origins to something more enterprise-worthy. This was only aided by the widespread shift to cloud-centric computing, which PHP — stateless by nature — was uniquely equipped to handle.

PHP: The Next Generation

PHP7 came at an opportune time in the mid-2010s. Apparent competition from Facebook’s PHP-based hacklang seemed to kick the release schedule for PHP5’s sequel into high gear, amidst worries that a competing, partially-compatible offshoot would fragment the ecosystem. The internals team, which typically ties major version jumps (3 to 4, 4 to 5, 5 to . . . 7) to significant engine improvements, did not disappoint. Version 7 arrived with huge speed improvements (5x, by many counts) and set about, over the lifespan of the 7.x line, finishing the task of strengthening the language’s guardrails. The end result took much of the wind out of hacklang’s sails and, though it continues as a part of facebook’s internal toolset, the feared splintering of the community did not arrive.

Now, as we await the arrival of PHP Next Generation — Version 8 — in the closing months of 2020, let’s look at how we’ve continued to work at the margins in our time with PHP 7, and how we can expect to see our visions realized in future PHP.

make it so

Building a more reflective environment

Beyond the speed boost, PHP greatly strengthened the type system, once considered a critical weakness of the language. Once a weakly typed language, its modern incarnations are more accurately gradually typed — that is to say, while you can still work in a fast and loose way as before, structure and boundary may be introduced as the lines become more defined.

Through external tools, through linters and validation, structure and boundary may be enforced on a project level. The language may be wielded in a way acceptable to the enterprise, without losing the dynamism, flexibility and lightness of weight that characterize a scripting language.

If PHP is the best of both worlds, it’s the hardening of its type system that has brought it there, and it’s around its type system that our work has revolved.

class Before {
protected $database;
public function getUser($id, $password);
}
class After {
protected $database;
public function getUser(int $id, string $age): User;
}

Before is an example of a method signature, PHP5-style. We can infer that $id is probably a number, and $password is probably a string of text. getUser probably returns a user record. These are all reasonable assumptions, but there’s no actual indication of this, and certainly no enforcement. What happens if you pass in a textual ID and a numeric password, or trick it to return something other than a user record? And putting aside everything that could go wrong at runtime, there’s little usable information here for an IDE to provide hinting as you work.

(In the months before PHP7 was announced, our team had a working model that looked an awful lot like After, running entirely on plain-vanilla PHP 5.4. We stopped work on it at that point, and the less we say about how we did it, the better.)

After, using the syntactic enhancements of PHP7, is replete with useful information for automated tools and human readers, and establishes clear boundaries for runtime operation. Try feeding in the wrong values, or coaxing out a bad result. The engine itself will refuse.

So what did people do before 2015? Labour with blind IDEs, unable to analyze their code? No, the PHP community did what it does in the face of adversity and established sensible community standards. Deriving from the Javadoc format, DocBlocks became a standard way of expressing the intent of a program.

class Annotated {
/** @var Connection */
protected $database;
/**
* Retrieve a user from the database.
* @param int $id
* @param string $password
* @throws UserNotFoundException
* @returns User
*/
public function getUser($id, $password);
}

In this way, people were pretending that PHP was well-typed long before it was. Now, these specifications are suggestions, not rules: the language does not register them and will not enforce them at runtime. But they provide a standard way to provide a wealth of metadata beyond what the type system can adequately capture, even now. (Referring back to the After diagram, you’ll notice that this diagram contains more information. PHP 7.0 was incapable of attaching type information to $database, and it doesn’t specify possible error states.)

So on our side we’ve got a consistently improving type system and well-defined documentation format with broad community support. We’ve got powerful Reflection capabilities built in to the language — that is, programs can read their own blueprint, make decisions based on their own structure. All this within a language with a history of dynamism and “magic” undefined conditions.
So let’s look at one way in which we worked past a shortcoming of PHP, and had the opportunity to loop back once the language caught up.

Typed Properties in PHP 7

Let’s dwell for a second or two on a fragment of the last two code samples, to see a shortcoming of PHP 7.0 as it initially shipped.

class After {
protected $database;
}
class Annotated {
/** @var Connection */
protected $database;
}

In contrast to methods, class properties such as the $database are as weakly-typed as ever before. Within a class, it’s the honour system. If you were to make $database public rather than protected, you’d be merely trusting the rest of your system not to pass in a bad value, and you’re telling the rest of system nothing (except by way of commentary) of its intended content.

Meanwhile, our team is building a framework around a Dependency Injection container, and this is a crucial bit of missing information for us as we attempt to analyze and fulfill the needs of a class.
But since we have metadata available in another way, we end up with something like this:

class ExampleController {
/**
* @var UserEntity
* @Inject(required=true)
*/
protected $user;
}

No, not the prettiest. We earnestly wished, at the time, that we could express property types like this:

class ExampleController {
protected UserEntity $user;
}

and Annotations like this, such as in Java:

class ExampleController {
@Inject(required=true)
protected $user;
}

but we continue to build our system as if the language had those functionalities, without our own implementations as a stopgap. In each case, we were expecting the language to go that way eventually, though we couldn’t say for certain any timeframe.

Sure enough, as development of PHP 7.x continued and initial shortcomings were resolved one by one, we got one item checked off our wishlist with PHP 7.4. Typed Properties now allowed the above to be slimmed down to:

class ExampleController {
/** @Inject(required=true) */
protected UserEntity $user;
}

Furthermore, the properly typed property doesn’t function just as a suggestion for the dependency system to interpret and fulfill. Another guardrail, formally in place, and we began supporting this method within our framework immediately. But its addition didn’t invalidate the old method. @var annotations remain valid and will remain so indefinitely.
But speaking of annotations…

Annotations in PHP 8

This is a bit of a “stop the presses” moment, as I had already written how this remains a long-running, major item on our wishlist. How I had followed various RFCs over the past decade, hopeful for each of them, resigned to the reality that it might never be accepted.

Our half-way implementation might be all we ever had, and that was okay. Then, with my press date looming, this lands in my inbox:

i just closed the vote. [Attributes v2](https://wiki.php.net/rfc/attributes_v2) was accepted with 51 yay, 1 nay. The selected syntax will be <<Attribute>>.

Thank you everyone for participating in the discussion and vote!

I was more than glad to tear up that draft, and I’ll be glad to see DocBlock annotations become an optional feature as code like this becomes the norm:

class ExampleController {
<<Inject>>
protected UserEntity $user;
}

Yet, even as the language has caught up with our intentions and we’ve adapted our course accordingly, functionality has remained consistent throughout. The language gave us enough rope to mock-up both features to the degree that we didn’t feel impoverished in their absence, and were able to pivot effortlessly when both were introduced.

It remains to be seen what aspect of PHP 9 we end up building, but we look forward to discovery.

There are many reasons to be excited for PHP 8!

Annotations — er, Attributes — are a definite favourite here, but a major PHP release is a big deal and we’ll be here in future weeks to go through them all.

FutureMobile AppsSocial MediaTechnology

As futuristic as it sounds, the idea of a robot taking your every request and helping you with daily tasks around your home, the office and on the go, does not sound far off from reality. We are not at the point in technology when these luxuries are available to all of us but I do not doubt we are on our way to such a life. Our phones are already smart enough to text people for us, order takeout or groceries from our couches, replace a wallet, and can be used to make other devices function without that device even being in sight.

The next steps for our phone automated functions, start with bots. If you’re like me, when you hear the word bot, you imagine a small, friendly, helpful robot ready to help you as it would be their pleasure. Bots today, do happen to be those small, friendly, helpful individuals made to provide you with your requested assistance. Even though not long ago we would have considered such technology to be fictional. They may not look exactly as they do in the movies, but we do have bots at our very fingertips.

The bots that we have today are created for two main uses. Search bots are designed for searching information from a specific website or search the whole Internet. The utility bot accommodates you by fulfilling an assignment you give it.

We use search bots to see when the next showings of that new movie is in theaters or to find the latest news stories by simply speaking the request. The utility bot is used when you need to make a grocery purchase and the bot already has the groceries picked out for you as it has remembered your orders from last time. If you think about it, you use bots just like these all the time, we may just not think of them as bots.

Facebook has been working on bots of their own, they call them chatbots. They are creating these with hopes of providing a wide variety of services that could all be reached through their own app. During the development of these bots they noted that the bots were capable of conversing with humans intelligently. Which is a definite breakthrough as we all know how frustrating certain bots can be when they cannot follow the conversation needed in order to fulfill their tasks.

Some people I talk to about bots and the potential they have, are afraid of what will become of the human race if we create these robots to function better than our own species. For the time being, that is not at all a concern of the bot developers. These bots still need hands on development and constant upgrading to keep up with tasks required of them in order to become useful, let alone take over the planet.

When bots do fail while operational, it causes the same negative appearance that a poor website or unqualified sales rep gives the face of the company they work for. That situation is avoided at any cost, meaning highly intelligent bots are not normally released for our use until they really are highly intelligent. Though some of us would argue that we have already been in contact with these less than intelligent bots. But I guess that is all part of the learning and growing process for the bot builders.

 

Bots are capable of possessing the reliability and knowledge needed for great customer service or the ability to complete an assignment requested by just a text. This will make it possible to avoid human error and will allow for much less struggle for you! I am quite excited thinking about all the ways these bots will assist me as they start replacing the very applications that started them.

Tess Houcher 

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ProductivityProgrammingTechnologyWeb Development

PHP, one of many languages Panda Rose has experts for.

A very common question that goes by my desk is “What programming language does your team specialize in?” I always find that question amusing for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that while I understand the adage “A Jack of all trades is a master of none.” I also appreciate the fact that if I am hiring a law firm, I do not just hire one person within that law firm. Nor, I hope, do I hire a large law firm where everyone who works for it is only familiar with one statute of the field of law.

Would you hire a patent law firm, if all they knew was the patent law specifically around inventions made in the 1990s?

Would you hire a real estate law firm, if all they knew was property law in the Montreal area?

Yes, there are very specific circumstances where that would be useful, but many would hire them as specialists to aid your usual lawyer, and not as the go-to for everything law.

So why would you hire a software development firm who only knows how to install WordPress, and install a few plugins, a theme, and ensure that the whole house of cards does not collapse until after you pay their contract?

They may save you money in the short-term, but the long-term costs could be massive, in some cases far more than you had originally budgeted.

As I have considered this over the years, I came the conclusion that a software consultancy should not follow the “Jack of all trades” adage as a firm. Yes, we have specialists who know the deep intricacies of the programming languages they work in, but we have more than one of them, and they do not all overlap on a single language. This way, we provide the service that best fits you.

So to answer that question, “Which programming language do you specialize in?” We specialize in the language that will help you succeed.

We are your dedicated CTO.

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