BOSTON — Forget Internet cool.
The "geek chic" of twentysomething entrepreneurs - with their fluorescent fashions, glib Web slang, and point-and-click indulgence - may be pass.
Instead, investors can find the best outlook for cyberspace down in the cellar, among companies stoking the Internet's furnace.
Today, the Internet belongs to its plumbers.
More than ever, shares in the glamorous portals and retailers - the Yahoos and Amazon.coms - sell at e-normous valuations.
But sanity reigns among the Web builders. They offer less glitz, but the opportunity is real and safer, say Internet fund managers.
"We're looking at the Internet infrastructure companies," says
Lawrence York, manager of the WWW Internet Fund in Louisville, Kentucky.
"Investors are focusing on retailing on the Web and the most talked about names while ignoring any rational prices," he says.
The overlooked firms are those that slap together the Internet's mortar and bricks - its software and hardware. Or, they're online repairmen, troubleshooters, and back-office drones that link businesses via the Net. They do the ordering, invoicing, and remitting.
Such companies logged more than $43 billion on the Web last year - five times the sales volume for Web retail businesses.
This e-commerce should swell 30 times to $1.3 trillion by 2003, claiming 9 percent of all commerce between businesses, according to Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
"We've always highlighted the business-to-business component as the bigger opportunity on the Internet," says Paul Cook, manager of the Munder NetNet fund.
As investments, many quiet builders of the Web are comparatively solid.
First, they have profits, something in short supply for most slick portals and Web retailers.
Consequently, they're better prepared to ride out a slump.
"You've got to buy stocks that have tangible assets and earnings," says Brett Miller, analyst of computer technology resellers and distribution at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "The global economy is not as strong as people in the US think, and if things turn sour you want to own companies with enough earnings to restructure."
Second, Web builders rely not on fickle consumers but on the snowballing group of companies going online.
"The infrastructure and enabling technology services are still the best sub-sectors," says Alexander Cheung, manager of the Monument Internet Fund.
Finally, the leading Internet builders generally have more shares in the market than the portals and retailers, making them less volatile during a market scare.
Among the Internet builders favored by analysts:
*In software, Oracle Corp. leads the field in selling programs that enable companies to store and retrieve data. Oracle programs streamline vital tasks like providing product information, gathering customer buying profiles, or tracking inventory and shipments. (Oracle stock recently plunged because of disappointing revenue growth.)
*Companies that build the Internet's data pipelines should flourish with the huge volumes of video, digital, and voice transmissions on telephone and cable lines. Favorites, although pricey, are Cisco Systems Inc. and Lucent Technologies Inc.
*The rising volume of data will boost Internet "access providers" like cable companies and satellite operators. For cable-TV companies, especially, the key to the future is not just TV but the Internet. They need to provide Internet access for their customers. Analysts like AT&T Corp., for example, which recently bought cable-TV giant TCI, and Comcast Corp., which recently said it will buy MediaOne Group, the first cable company to provide high-speed, cable Internet access. Among the promising satellite companies - EchoStar Communications and Hughes Electronics.
*Once the stream of data enters homes, it's more likely to enter a simple "information appliance" rather than a complex personal computer. Such appliances will merely convey and store data, rather than crunch it. Network Appliance Inc. is often mentioned as a forerunner.
*Internet consultants should soar as they guide thousands of companies online. Cambridge Technology Partners is often mentioned as a favorite.
*Many workaday business services should boom. Harbinger Corp. and Checkfree Holdings Corp. are shifting onto the Web after years of processing electronic payments for businesses. Their share prices are valued at a fraction of other Internet firms.
"The key to long-term gains," says Mr. York, "is focusing on the business and value rather than on the hype."