HTML vs PHP: Which to Learn First
If you’re just starting out in web development, you might be wondering which to learn first: HTML or PHP. For web developers just starting out, there can be a temptation to dive straight into any programming language. But even though PHP is arguably the more “fun” of the two languages, there are very good reasons to start at the beginning and learn HTML before you jump in to scripting with PHP.
There’s a reason it’s one of the primary programming languages you’ll learn in the QuickStart Web Development Boot Camp.
In this article, we’ll describe the benefits of both HTML and PHP, compare the two front-end languages, and then talk about why HTML is a better first language.
What is HTML?
HTML is, very simply, the language that makes websites work. HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language, and although the “hyper” might make you think of cool action adventures from the 80s, let’s focus on “markup language”.
If you don’t already understand what a markup language is, the technical definition of one isn’t very helpful. A markup language is “a system for annotating a document in a manner syntactically distinguishable from the text.” That’s not exactly crystal-clear, so let’s explain HTML in simpler terms.
In the simplest terms, HTML is a system of labeling parts of a document – with labels that are different from the actual text and invisible to someone reading it. HTML’s labeling is done so that different sections of the document can be identified and treated differently.
With HTML, you label each element of a web page so that browsers know how to display each element. Using HTML, you can label what the main title of a page is, what text should be italicized or underlined, where each paragraph starts and finishes, and a lot more. HTML is an entire language for noting what each part of a document is and how it should be displayed.
How Popular is HTML?
HTML is the universal standard for labeling webpages and building websites. Realistically, there really aren’t any viable competitors to HTML. If you’re building webpages, you’re doing it in HTML.
Admittedly, there are alternatives to HTML. But the vast majority of them don’t really replace HTML, they just give the user a different tool to use and spit out HTML on the backend. The bottom line really is that if it’s the internet, it’s almost always HTML.
Macromedia Flash (eventually bought by Adobe) is one notable exception. Flash was one way to provide animations, games, and applications that weren’t via HTML. The history of Flash on the internet is a long and complicated one, and we won’t go into it now. But suffice it to say that Flash is now discontinued. And the thing that Flash was known for – playing audio and video within web pages – is now being incorporated in HTML 5, the newest version of the HTML language.
What is PHP?
PHP, on the other hand, isn’t a replacement or alternative to HTML – it’s a scripting language that can be used to extend HTML’s functionality. PHP stands for, strangely enough, “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”, and it’s an open-source scripting language that’s extremely popular in web development.
We pointed out earlier that HTML is a markup language, but PHP is not – PHP is a scripting language. What makes a computer language a “scripting language” is more complicated than it’s worth getting into here, but simply enough, scripting languages are languages that work inside certain hardware/software set-ups to automate tasks.
So that means that unlike HTML if you’re planning on using PHP, you need to download and install it on your server. But the great thing about PHP is that it’s free and open-source, and installing it is a breeze. PHP is so overwhelmingly common that you’d probably have a harder time finding a web host who didn’t support PHP than finding one that does.
PHP and HTML often get talked about together. And there’s a reason for that: PHP is most often used to generate HTML. Remember, PHP is a scripting language – it automates tasks. And HTML is a markup language, it labels elements of a document. Because it can do some “thinking”, PHP can create dynamic page content, something that HTML could never do
PHP can do a lot that HTML simply can’t. Because what PHP does is create dynamic page content. PHP can create, read, write, and delete files on a server, and as it accesses, moves and shows those files, it can create completely unique HTML files. PHP is a language that lets you access files on a server, or take data that was inputted into a form or modify data in a database, and then assemble it into an HTML page for a viewer.
But we’ve left the most important part of PHP for last: the code that you write in PHP happens on the server. Here’s what that means: when a visitor comes to your website, their request goes to the server, the parts of the page that have PHP run on the server, and the output is all HTML, and HTML gets delivered to the visitor. On the backend, a server could be running all PHP and the visitor would never know it – because the server and their computer are both speaking HTML to one another.
How Popular is PHP?
PHP is a very popular scripting language, it’s arguably one of the most common languages in use on the internet. For open source developers, it’s one of the pillars of the so-called “LAMP stack”. Many developers pride themselves on being proficient in the Linux operating system, Apache servers, MySQL database management system, and PHP programming language. If you’re a web developer and you know the L, A, M, and P, you can manage almost anything on the internet.
The size and scope of the entire internet make getting exact numbers difficult, but many estimates say that 8 in 10 websites use PHP in one way or another. PHP, like HTML, is one of the central pillars of modern internet usage.
What Is HTML Best at?
Asking what HTML excels at is sort of like asking what English excels at. It has idiosyncrasies and difficulties, but in the end, it’s simply the underlying language. HTML tells web browsers what each part of a website is and – sometimes – what should be done with it. Using HTML, a developer can specify where each paragraph is, where links are, what images exist inside the document.
HTML isn’t just for telling browsers how to display web pages, though. Emails, newsletters, WordPress sites, Tumblr templates – these all use HTML. And just like someone who masters English could go on to write a novel, a non-fiction book, poetry, song lyrics, and more, someone who masters HTML could go on to write almost all of what happens on the Internet.
What are Limitations to HTML?
HTML’s biggest limitation is that it only creates static pages. Writing in HTML is like writing a book: once you publish the book, it’s the same for everyone. You couldn’t publish a book that delivers a different 21st page to someone in New York than someone from California. HTML is the same: with straight HTML, you can’t swap out paragraphs or images. Using HTML, you’re limited to the decisions you’ve made ahead of time about content on your page and where it’ll display.
In addition to that, HTML doesn’t do very much on its own. Although you can use HTML to explain how certain elements should look and be displayed, it’s tedious and doesn’t lend itself to large projects. There are ways around that – most notably CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), but that in itself is not only a different language altogether, but it’s a limitation that forces developers to maintain separate sets of files: HTML files that cover what the content of a site is, and CSS files that describe how the content should look.
Also, not unlike the English language, HTML is complex. HTML is a living language that continually receives updates and new tags to learn. It can be challenging to keep up with the latest changes to HTML.
What is PHP Best at?
As we mentioned above, PHP delivers HTML to a user. But before it does that, it can generate dynamic page content. So, unlike a straight HTML page, you can include entire sections that are conditional. Maybe you want a different image on a page based on what day of the week it is. Or maybe you want to swap out text based on how the stock market is doing. The possibilities of what PHP lets a web developer do are endless.
A huge feature of PHP is its popularity. All major platforms (Windows, Linux, Mac OS X) support PHP, and nearly all servers used today are compatible with it. It also supports a wide range of databases. It’s also free, open source, and readily available for download at php.net. And as if all that weren’t enough, it’s also pretty easy to learn.
What are Limitations to PHP?
PHP’s biggest feature is also its biggest drawback: it may be popular and open source, but that means that everyone who wants to can see the source code. And if there are bugs hidden away there, bad actors might explore the weaknesses.
It’s also not perfect for large applications. Although a skilled PHP coder can overcome the hurdles, it’s not ideal for programming large applications and it would make maintaining especially big projects difficult.
In fact, almost all of PHP’s strengths are also potential weaknesses. For example, PHP is very flexible. Even a relatively new PHP programmer could figure out several different solutions to the same problem – and that’s great. But it can also mean that the next person to touch the code is confused by the hodgepodge solutions and “duct tape” the previous developer used.
Fortunately, for almost all these double-sided aspects of PHP, the solution is almost always maintaining good standards. There are best practices that make it a secure code base, ways to make it more modular, and methods to follow or comments to help explain what you were trying to accomplish while you go.
Is PHP Still Relevant in 2021?
If you’ve been researching web languages, you may have found conversations suggesting that PHP is outdated. PHP is not outdated. PHP is definitely still relevant in 2021. There may come a time when PHP is no longer the de facto server-side programming language, but that time is a long, long way in the future.
The controversy around PHP’s relevance will continue for a long time, but for developers all over the world, you just can’t beat PHP’s ease of use, accessibility, versatility, and – best of all – it’s a low barrier to entry.
Is HTML Easier to Learn Than PHP?
HTML is probably a bit easier to learn than PHP, but that comes with a lot of caveats. They’re different languages that do different things. Mastering either language would take a long time, and since PHP usually creates and enables HTML, it would make sense that you’d learn HTML first.
All things considered, it’s probably safe to say that HTML is easier to learn than PHP. PHP will usually take more time and effort to master than HTML. That said, comparing them isn’t apples-to-apples.
With that said, you’ll get exposure to both PHP and HTML in the QuickStart Web Development Boot Camp. HTML and CSS are definitely the primary languages here, but you’ll also get experience with PHP in the WordPress boot camp modules.
If you want to get into web development, there’s no avoiding HTML and PHP. And now that you’ve learned some of how they compare, you probably realize that the most logical way to learn them is to start with HTML and work your way to PHP. Since most of what PHP does ultimately ends up as HTML, not understanding how HTML does what it does would be pretty backward. Web developers, application developers – and really anyone who interacts with websites or web pages – who want to code, program, or script dynamic web content should make sure they understand HTML first and then move on to PHP.