The Java Community Process(SM) Program - JSRs: Java Specification Requests - detail JSR# 168

The Portlet specification will define a Portlet API that provides means for aggregating several content sources and applications front ends. It will also address how the security and personalization is handled.

Sounds like portlets are designed to build sites in a pull manner. That is, the page declares what content it will show and pulls it from different content providers (portlets). This is different than the servlet push manner, in which the servlet compiles the content and pushes it to the page to be rendered. It's defined from the perspective of how the resource's content is defined.
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