In the 1980s the Japanese government caused a global stir with its long-term, heavily integrated 5th Generation Programme to achieve a step change advantage in supercomputing. The West suddenly found itself behind the Japanese and scrambled to compete.
China's low-key announcement last week of its Five Year Plan for its manufacturing industry is in the same league.
China plans to use 3-D interactive virtual worlds as the interface with future customers. The virtual worlds will be tightly coupled with real-life manufacturing and distribution industries, enabling buyers to customise their orders at low cost.
Customisation on a global scale was an early dream of the dotcom era, but problems such as bandwidth, security and consumer trust held it back.
China has revisited this scenario in spades. It has harnessed the new 3-D interactive web technologies, the functionality opened up by IP version 6.0, integrated virtual world thinking and open interoperability. All of this is heavily integrated with real-world banking and payment systems, online registration and verification, trust and security.
Above all, as with the Japanese 5th Generation Programme, the Chinese approach has been globally oriented from the start, with buy-in at the highest levels of government and industry. There has been a three-year planning period with considerable discussion and consensus building. Leadership is clear and the programme is a jointly funded government/industry venture.
The formal launch will be just before the start of the Beijing Olympics, and an early application will be individualised shirt manufacture and global distribution. This may not affect the share prices of Western retailers in 2008, but it is likely to have a strong impact on the way we all do business by 2013.