The other day, when talking about Microsoft's adventures with the OOXML standard it drafted, I said something to the effect that someone could easily write a book about that escapade. As it turns out, someone is.
That someone is Andrew Updegrove, a lawyer who, according to his c.v., has done work with the boards of directors of both ANSI and the Linux Foundation and done a good deal of work in the open standards space. He's been working on a "real-time eBook writing project" called ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words, where he lays out the history of the two open formats in the context of the industry it's playing out in. It's interesting not just because it has a history of how Microsoft got faced with the prospect of using open standards or else (however they could weasel on that particular point), but also from the point of view of how open standards have affected IT as a whole.
Among the many tidbits in this book (so far) is one of the more succinct breakdowns I've seen of the real difference between the two formats: "... the costs to innovation in achieving true 'plug and play' interoperability when that result is feasible may be unacceptably high, leading to a decision to create a standard that (like ODF) only locks in a very significant amount of functionality, rather than complete uniformity (as OOXML strives to achieve)." (From Chapter 5.) In short, he finds that Microsoft is still trying to think like the old days, where "the marketplace found a single vendor-controlled 'standard platform' [was] an acceptable tradeoff during the early days of the desktop". (From here.)
There are people who don't feel that multiple XML document formats are a bad thing in the abstract -- like blogger Dare Obasanjo, who thinks a rivalry between the two is as pointless as RSS vs. Atom. An open standard is an open standard, he claims. But even if that were true, competition between open standards is neither pointless nor trivial, because no matter who you are -- a software vendor, a customer, Joe Novelist -- it takes a good deal of time and effort to choose, implement, and standardize on one of those two formats.
I don't believe for a second that Microsoft is just going to shrug off OOXML, or that the standards-setting bodies and application authors out there are going to ditch ODF. I'm fairly sure we'll see a situation where the two formats will eventually have a high degree of interchangeability, thanks to both vendor- and community-written applications -- but Microsoft is still going to stump for OOXML as the "better" of the two because it offer more "choices," or something to that effect. Choices, yes, but dictated by whom, and to what end?