Globalize your Web Applications: Working with Dates in PHP | WebReference

Globalize your Web Applications: Working with Dates in PHP

By Rob Gravelle


The global nature of the Internet makes internationalization a key consideration when developing web applications. Limiting your user interface by sticking with traditional U.S. English formatting conventions runs the risk of alienating a huge segment of your target audience! The parameters that define attributes for a user's specific geographic location, including the user's language, country and any special variant preferences that the user wants to see in their user interface is called the locale. In Part 1 of the Globalize your Web Applications series, we examined what the locale entails and how different operating systems support them. The next few articles will focus on locale support at the programming language level. Using language-specific locale features allows your applications to support many different locales, regardless of the settings on the computer, which runs the application. So far, we've covered PHP's I18N_Country and I18N_Language classes, which are part of the I18N Libraries. Today, we'll look at date formatting considerations in PHP.

Working with Dates

If you recall from the last article, locales affect much more than language; they also affect the formatting of currency, numbers, dates, and time. It's just as important to consider these as the language because visitors from other locales than your own may be confused by formats. Dates are an apt example. The format MM/DD/YY is unique to the United States. However, most of Europe uses DD/MM/YY. Japan uses YY/MM/DD. The separators may be slashes, dashes or periods. Some locales print leading zeroes; others suppress them. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that dates can be one of the most frustrating data fields to format and process. Have you ever seen a date formatted as "1/5/1999"? You can't help but wonder "is that Jan 5, 1999 or May 1, 1999?" When in doubt, you can assume that it's which ever one fits your locale. On the other hand, if you're talking about an International application, there's really no way to be sure. Your best defense here is a good offence: take the guesswork out of date formats!

Two ways to do that include using a locale neutral format and disambiguating between the month and day.

Using a Locale Neutral Format

This is the easiest to implement because you don't have to cater to different locales. It's also universally understood by computers. The format, YYYY-MM-DD, is known as ISO 8601. Formatting dates in this way gives you the added advantage that a list of dates will sort in chronological order using a standard character sort. This is definitely advantageous to you, the developer, but ISO 8601 is perhaps not so user friendly, as people are usually more comfortable with their localized date formats. Finally, this solution is particularly less effective in countries where an alternative calendar is used, such as Thailand where the Buddhist calendar predominates.

Disambiguating between the Month and Day

After years of wrestling with date formats, I have settled on this approach as my personal favorite for displaying dates. All of my department's applications use a DD-MMM-YYYY, where MMM is an abbreviated month name such as "Jul" in English, or "Jui" in French; the idea being that it's pretty hard to confuse the month and day using the month name! Yes, it does take a bit of work to look up the month name in the designated locale, but the results are fool-proof. As a rule of thumb, we store the underlying Date object in the database because it will choke on the month name if the locale on the database server differs from the one used in the GUI tier. Computers inherently manage dates in the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) format, which is internally represented as the number of milliseconds since Jan 1 1970. All of the major programming languages have a function to convert dates into the UTC native format. PHP, for instance, has a couple of useful functions:

int time ( void ): Returns the current time measured in the number of seconds since the UNIX Epoch (January 1 1970 00:00:00 GMT).

For an even more accurate value, use the microtime() function:

mixed microtime ([ bool $get_as_float ] ): Returns the current UNIX timestamp with microseconds. Note that this function is only available on operating systems that support the gettimeofday() system call. When called without the optional argument, the function returns a string in the format of "msec sec" where sec is the number of seconds since the UNIX Epoch (0:00:00 January 1, 1970 GMT) and msec is the microseconds part. If the optional get_as_float is set to true then a float (in seconds) is returned instead. Here's an example to illustrate:

int strtotime ( string $time [, int $now ] ): Parses any English textual datetime description into a UNIX timestamp. The $time parameter is the string to parse. Before PHP 5.0.0, microseconds weren't allowed in the time; since PHP 5.0.0 they are allowed but ignored. $now refers to the timestamp which is used as a base for the calculation of relative dates. If this parameter is omitted, the current time is used. Returns a timestamp on success, false otherwise:

The I18N_DateTime Class

The PHP I18N Libraries Revisited

PHP comes with a set of PEARs that support internationalization from several different angles and levels of complexity. PEAR stands for PHP Extension and Application Repository, which is a framework and distribution system for reusable PHP components. The package is named using the abbreviation for Internationalization that we saw above. The I18N library comes with the following class trees:

Root class I18N_Common
Root class I18N_Format

In part one, we explored the Common branch's Country and Language classes. The I18N_DateTime class, located under the I18N_Format branch, will be our focus for the remainder of today's article.