Many of the emerging Platform as a Service offerings encourage business users or specialist business solution providers to create their own custom applications. From Coghead to Iceberg, Quickbase to Rollbase and Longjump to Zoho, the message is one of unlimited freedom to custom-build your own business process automation.
It can only be a matter of time before this army of newly enfranchised business developers begins infringing pre-existing software patents, in particular those covering software implementations of business processes. If the US Patent and Trademark Office already has such a hard time finding prior art, how is the average business user supposed to work out whether they've breached some arcane patent for a Method of locating web-pages by utilising visual images or for Methods and systems of assisting users in purchasing items? Perhaps a pre-emptive search for patent infringements is a service that PaaS providers should consider offering their customers — unless of course someone has already thought of that and now owns the rights to a Method of identifying patent infringements by user-generated applications.
If the advent of PaaS stirs up a plague of patent trolls to resurrect long-dead patents and bring suits against providers or users it could become a nightmare for the nascent industry. The providers who suffer most will be those based in countries that enforce business methods patents most rigorously: the United States, Australia, Japan and Singapore, according to Wikipedia's article on the topic. In contrast, "patent protection for business method patents in Israel, China, India, Mexico, and most of Europe is difficult."
That's good news, then, for Irish provider Iceberg, and perhaps for Zoho and Longjump, both of whom have Asian roots and could easily redomicile there if patent action makes the US too uncomfortable for PaaS providers. Bad news, though, for US small businesses, whose competitiveness will suffer so long as US laws give more protection to deep-pocketed patent hoarders than to cash-strapped entrepreneurs striving to streamline their business operations.