Matt Mullenweg announced today that Automattic, the maker of ultra-popular blog platform Wordpress, has acquired universal avatar service Gravatar for an undisclosed sum. Gravatar, which stands for "globally recognized avatar," provides centralized hosting and web serving for 80x80 avatars, which can then be called from any participating blog, forum, or web application that taps into the Gravatar API. The theory is that users can have one web avatar that they manage in a single location, but which represents them automatically anywhere they post online.

Automattic has already moved the Gravatar operation to the Wordpress infrastructure, which they say has resulted in gravatar serving that is 3 times faster -- which is good, because one of the reasons I was initially cold the service when it launched was that it often seemed to hang forum and blog pages that used it.

Mullenweg also hinted at other improvements to the service, including moving gravatar delivery to a CDN, making all premium features (such as the ability to have multiple avatars) free, upping the maximum size of gravatars to 128px, integrating the service with Wordpress.com (duh), and supporting Microformats on the site's profile pages. He also talked about rewriting the Gravatar application itself (which is written in Rails) to better fit with the Wordpress infrastructure. I suppose that means a PHP-based Gravatar service in the near future.

Mullenweg compared Gravatar to another Automattic product, spam protection plugin Akismet. "I also saw a lot of parallels to Akismet, a product that does one thing, does it well, and has an open API so any platform can use it," he wrote. But where Askimet does something fairly complicated and benefits from the input of its users (flagging spam that slips through causes its filters to improve), Gravatar does something pretty simple and doesn't really benefit from the crowd.

At the forum I co-own, we've been slowly working on developing our own proprietary forum software. We considered using Gravatar for avatar management, but I've been arguing against it for a few reasons. First, uploading and storing small images is an easy task and not very resource intensive (avatars are generally under 8k each), and relying on an outside service has always seemed silly to me. Second, I think web sites tend to run faster the fewer outside services they have to query on each page load -- avatar hosting is such a painless thing to handle on our end it seemed to make more sense to do just that. Finally, asking people to sign up to a third party service to upload an avatar would be an unnecessary annoyance for users. Besides, I like to try on different avatars at different communities (sometimes I'm "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, other times I am "Raoul Duke" from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

I can see how the idea of a globally accessibly avatar would be appealing to many people though, and the acquisition does make sense for Automattic. They can further build out their blog services platform (Wordpress, Akismet, and now Gravatar), and integrate it into Wordpress.com, which could help them build the hosted blog platform into a social network akin to Live Journal or Xanga if they ever decided to go that route. Either way, congratulations to Gravatar founder, Tom Werner. Tom is a big Ruby guy, so with the potential of a Gravatar rewrite in PHP (as Mullenweg appeared to allude), it seems unlikely to me that he'd stick around Automattic. So what's next, Tom?