MFG 2.0

Microsoft Versus Google Versus China For Virtual World Supremacy

With Second Life (see article and slideshow Second Life: What Is It, And Why Should Manufacturers Care?) still rolling along despite some bumps in the virtual road, and IBM's announcement that it would create OpenSocial-style "portable" avatars, it's not surprising to see the two behemoths of the tech space, Microsoft and Google, both horning in on what may turn out to be a real-world market opportunity.

However, instead of going the fantasy island route of Second Life, both are looking to base their virtual worlds on the real one, each leveraging and extending its already robust mapping services portfolio (Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Earth, respectively) by "fleshing them out" and even potentially mashing up social networks to encourage user participation/identification/commercial activity.

During a discussion at the recent Web 2.0 summit, general manager of Live Search at Microsoft Erik Jorgensen said the software maker is partnering with the design software specialists at Dassault Systems and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a 3-D replication of the real world, in effect using it as a platform to provide users with reality-based, interactive virtual geography.

Meanwhile, Google recently announced a social network overlay for the map creation tools in Google Maps that could signal one step towards the Google Streetview/Google Earth mashup that we've all been waiting for, and that may someday soon be positioned as a reality-based competitor to Second Life.

Either one of these would be welcomed by a business world that wants to believe in the promise of Second Life meeting spaces to cut their T&E budgets, but is understandably put off by the NSFW content, not to mention incidences of "griefing."

Not to be left out of the movement of huge entities, the Chinese government itself announced a ambitious virtual world project of its own:

China's government is building a vast virtual world dubbed Beijing Cyber Recreation District, which founders say will help the manufacturing superpower evolve into an e-commerce juggernaut.

Some supply-chain experts say the project is impossibly grandiose in its goal to provide direct links between tens of thousands of Chinese manufacturers and millions of individual customers around the world.

Picture this: every "Made in China" label eventually could include a Web site address where customers could visit and order from a catalog of products —which Chinese factories would then produce to order and ship directly to consumers' homes.

Such is the vision of Chi Tau Robert Lai, chief scientist of the virtual world, who spoke of the project's main benefit as being able to leverage just-in-time manufacturing principles to cut out "brokers, shippers, purchasers, even retailers."

Sounds like a good business model, nonwithstanding that the same thing has been the goal of every manufacturer since the dawn of sales. Plus, the whole idea seems fairly half-baked and frankly logistically unrealistic. Read this and tell me if it makes any sense to you:

Lai acknowledged that Chinese manufacturers can't efficiently crank out just one custom-ordered shirt. But they can wait until numerous people and clothing shops around the world submit similar orders, then assemble 5,000 of the same blue, pinstriped button-down shirt and ship it within a day or two, he said.

Lai said the CRD could eventually become a bigger version of eBay Inc., which connects buyers and sellers worldwide online in both auction and fixed-price formats.

Just-in-time manufacturing is expected to generate the largest amount of revenue for the CRD, but the network also will host cultural exchanges, corporate meetings, educational classes and other events common in virtual worlds. Registration will be free, Lai said. Users will buy virtual items with credit cards or micropayments in dozens of currencies.

If it ever comes about, I will probably check it out (for your sake, of course) with a couple caveats:

1. I'll probably do so on a public computer, as there's no need for me to sacrifice my nice, shiny, Chinese-made Sony VAIO to the cause; and

2. Even if I were convinced -- sight unseen --of the quality of the goods offered (which isn't bloody likely) you won't catch me breaking out the Visa.

After all, if there's one thing that the last few years of cybercrime coverage have taught us, it's that at least hackers Made In China are top quality.

TAGS: Innovation
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