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Opportunity knocks in a hideous and ugly fashion sometimes. Right now, it's knocking on the Web. The speed with which this Net sector crash happened has taken managers' breath away. In some cases -- such as the one dealt with in this week's excellent

Business Week

cover story on

Value America

(VUSA)

-- it may take companies themselves away.

But it won't take them all away. It's time to ask basic questions of survival and originality here. So let's go back to the time before the dot-com revolution -- a time before Tom.com, Dick.com and Harry.com, a time when the world was

Webless

.

You must ask yourself: Which companies have a proprietary position, a proprietary data base or a proprietary set of customers -- something that simply can't be duplicated?

I know it seems wide open, but let's think for a second. Take a look at your mail. Notice all of those catalogues? Ever invest in a catalogue company? Crummy business. I've done it a couple of times. Almost always a heartbreaker, I'm afraid. (Catalogue company CEOs, don't email me! I've suffered enough at the hands of your stocks! Don't compound the injury!)

Now, remember, every e-tailer is essentially a catalogue company. I don't care if they sell dogs, cats, books, trinkets, cosmetics, sporting goods, computers, flowers, CDs, DVDs, movies, tickets, cars ... anything. It doesn't matter. They're just catalogue companies.

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report

is a big catalogue company, so big that others might want to tap into its network. So big that it will survive.

And the others?

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Take 'em or leave 'em, because a funny thing happened on the way to e-tailing heaven: It turned out to be as hard as retail. I spoke this truth for a year and nobody listened, but suddenly the new low list is littered with e-tailers and I wouldn't own one of them -- except maybe Amazon -- and that's because it's still got a real stock. So, that means a huge number of stocks can't be touched.

But how about eBay

(EBAY) - Get eBay Inc. Report

? Now

that

is a different story. A real story. Nobody ever overtook them.

Sotheby's

(BID) - Get Sotheby's Report

was supposed to. Now they're fighting for their corporate lives. And

priceline.com

(PCLN)

, which I am long, was supposed to, but it hasn't.

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

was supposed to, but it hasn't. Maybe eBay won.

If I worked at a newspaper I'd be doing everything I could in the hope that eBay's stock goes down, because eBay is the classifieds of the future. How much is that worth? Ah, now that's another question.

Maybe less than eBay is selling for now. Maybe more. Push. But if it goes down, the case can be made that eBay will remain proprietary. As for all of the other auction and reverse auction companies out there, I don't know -- there seem to be too many for any or all of them to remain that way.

We think priceline is proprietary because it has lots of patents on a method of buying that seems to have traction with people. Is it worth what it's selling for? As someone who is long priceline, I answer: No, it's worth

more

. But I have no illusions, it's being brought down by its dot-com legacy.

Sometimes there are a couple of players still duking it out and the winner could be big.

Monster.com

and

HotJobs.com

(HOTJ)

are in a pitched battle. My money would be on HotJobs when the smoke clears, but the smoke hasn't cleared yet.

The one thing I am certain about is that all of those well-funded projects that are still on the drawing board or in their last stages before going public will have a rough time going forward,

which is the only good news for that sad list of stocks I just recited

.

This is why we have to go through this exercise: The surviving companies that can make it to profitability, or at least staunch the flow of losses, are being checked out right now by traditional companies that never got going on the Web. If we can find them before they get bought out, we'll make money either on the takeover game or because they do actually have a shot at profitability.

Watch these next quarters closely. See who is losing

less

than expected.

See who might get profitable. See who can make it on their own. Any such company is likely to be picked off in the next few months by someone else. And

that's

what I want to own.

James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund was long priceline.com and Yahoo!. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at

jjcletters@thestreet.com.