SAN FRANCISCO -- Watching the Internet explode around him, Vincent Schiavone quietly began buying domain names that began with the number four: 4wine.com, 4babies.com, 4soccer.com, 4anything.com.
Next week -- three years after the Philadelphia entrepreneur began buying "4" domains -- Schiavone will officially launch 4anything.com, adding yet another portal to a crowded market led by Yahoo! and America Online.
"The Internet, as hot as it is, is really still in its infancy," said Schiavone on Tuesday at an Internet commerce conference in San Francisco. "We want to lead the second wave of portals."
Portals are the entry points for users to venture onto the Internet. Consumers use them to find a wealth of online services such as free e-mail, news, chat and personalized functions like stock quotes, local weather and sports.
In the prosperous world of the Internet, portals have seen big payoffs. They make money selling advertisements, and by pointing customers to businesses. New York-based Jupiter Communications estimates that online retail sales generated by portal sites will represent $2.4 billion out of the $13 billion total projected this year.
As the market has evolved, Yahoo! and America Online Inc. have become among the most visited sites on the Internet. Others, such as Excite Inc., have been acquired by companies eager to tap into the portals' power.
These days, there are more than 500 portals on the Web -- including portals to search for portals. Of those, however, only about a dozen classics are widely used.
Most of the established portals are geared toward the average Web surfer, offering a wide range of options.
Now a new era of more sophisticated portals are searching out more specialized audiences. They hope to profit by selling advertisements to companies looking to target their message.
"When people first come on the Internet, they are so overwhelmed by all the information that these big established portals serve a very important function as a funnel," said Jonathan Yarmis, an eMarketWorld executive vice president from Richmond, Va.
"But as users become more savvy, they realize these portals have editorial slants, or are simply too broad, for what they need," Yarmis said.
So now, there are pornography-focused portals like HotSpots and SexCites; medical portals like CliniWeb and HealthGate; shopping portals like Citimall; and specialized search engines just for finding people, like Bigfoot and InfoSpace.
Andrew and Steven Deitch, cousins from Long Island, N.Y., scraped together $10,000 to launch FreeWebCentral, a portal geared toward business travelers.
The portal's stock section includes a ticker tape, global clocks and a stock split calendar. But the most popular spot on FreeWebCentral is a link to unclaimed bank, dividend and tuition accounts gathered from state comptrollers.
FAST, a vastly different portal slated to debut this summer, comes from Dell Computer and Fast Search and Transfer, a Norwegian company that develops search engine technology.
Their portal will search virtually the entire Web in response to every request. Most existing search engines only mine through about 10 percent of the hundreds of millions of Web sites on the Information Highway.
At 4anything.com, Schiavone expects his users to be consumers who don't want the obscure and bizarre items buried deep in the Web.
"We're not giving them the volume of the Web," he said. "We're going through that volume ourselves, and just giving our users the best of the Web."