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Kristie Lu Stout's Web log

By CNN's Kristie Lu Stout

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Kristie's item for sale on eBay.

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SILICON VALLEY, California (CNN) -- The Spark team is in Silicon Valley, California, and Kristie Lu Stout is blogging on the road. Bookmark this page to read her daily journal.

Day 1: Getting to grips with eBay
Day 2: Meeting 'Inspector Gadget'
Day 3: A trip down memory lane
Day 4: Big deals in a small diner
Day 5: That Silicon Valley spirit

Day 1: Getting to grips with eBay

I've always been an eBay lurker -- clicking through to that vintage handbag, but never having the pluck to place a bid.

Nor have I turned to eBay to unload some of my real world shopping mistakes. With all the hassles -- registration, site tending, shipping, etc. -- I could never be bothered.

Until I was forced to, for the sake of a Spark story.

With an unloved Lalique figurine in tow, I visited the main warehouse of AuctionDropexternal link in Fremont, California.

AuctionDrop is an eBay "drop-off shop" that does all the dirty work for you.

In the case of my castaway collectible, AuctionDrop registered it, photographed it, and laced it with a most flowery -- yet accurate -- description:

"This figurine is made of crystal with a frost-like finish."

I particularly enjoyed another line, which would put any poetically-inclined real estate agent to shame: "This elegantly designed crystal statuette is a perfect addition to any home and an absolute must for any Lalique enthusiast."

The descriptions and accompanying photographsexternal link are designed to pump up the bidding.

But the spin and overall service will cost me about 30 percent commission of the final sale.

Founded in March 2003, AuctionDrop claims to be the first eBay drop-off outlet. It has since spawned a gaggle of copycats in Germany, the UK, Australia and elsewhere.

AuctionDrop is another start-up piggybacking off the success of the so-called eBay economy. It's also another reminder of how big the service economy has become.

Overworked professionals all over the world are willing to pay top dollar for the main benefit of a service-oriented economy -- more free time.

In addition to time savings, the drop-off shop is touting another big perk -- cold hard cash for the stuff you don't want.

My mothballed crystal paperweight is now billed on eBay as the "Authentic Lalique collectible figurine faune with original box."

Two days into a 7-day listing, and it's sitting pretty... at a paltry $56.

(Proceeds from the sale of Kristie's unloved figurine will be donated to charity)

Day 2: Meeting 'Inspector Gadget'

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Kubrick on the cheap: Kristie with the CVS One-Time-Use Camcorder

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Langbergexternal link, personal technology editor at the "San Jose Mercury News." We taped him as our gadget guru for an upcoming Spark NewsFlash segment on the latest and greatest gear in the Valley.

Mike is not a conspicuous gadget geek. He carries a beat-up leather briefcase in lieu of a nylon gadget carry-all. But believe me, he's got the goods.

He showed me one of the most talked-about toys in recent weeks -- the CVS One-Time-Use Video Camcorder from San Francisco-based Pure Digital.

I was expecting a throwaway digicam in a cardboard box, but the CVS Camcorder is far more robust in its hard plastic case with a sleek playback screen.

It sells for $29 at CVS drug stores in the United States. Add the $12.99 fee to process video into a DVD, and you have one pricey way to capture 20 minutes of memories in VHS quality.

Still, Mike pointed out that the gadget has some great applications. For example, it could be used in places where toting a high-end digicam would be too risky.

I see it as the next great wedding crasher -- something to leave on guest tables to capture the sights and sounds the videographer may have missed.

Mike also introduced me to something called the Sling Box, a $249 home networking device from San Mateo-based Sling Mediaexternal link.

The Sling Box looks uncannily like a silver foil-wrapped bar of chocolate. It links your television to the Internet so you can shift your TV experience to the PC.

Its creators, Bhupen Shah and brothers Blake Krikorian and Jason Krikorian, came up with the idea when local baseball heroes, the San Francisco Giants, were in the playoffs two years ago and they found themselves on the road with no way to catch the action.

They eventually found a way around it, and will unveil their solution to the U.S. market on July 1.

The applications for the Sling Box are endless: CNN engineers on the road can use it to turn a laptop into a TV return monitor. I can hook it up to my TV set in Hong Kong so my California-based parents can watch CNN International (which is not available on their digital cable subscription) live.

But ask Mike, "Will it fly?" and you'll get a shrug of the shoulders. Mobile professionals may love it, but they represent a small audience. Also, television is going broadband anyway, so why invest in an interim solution?

Mike unveiled one more gadget to me -- the Fireflyexternal link phone, which fulfils an immediate need of every vigilant parent -- how to keep tabs on the kids.

The Firefly is marketed as a parental tool, but it is what it is -- a Smurf-blue $199 cell phone built for six to 12-year olds.

As creepy as it sounds, this handset is not designed to be constantly pressed against the head of a toddler. It's more of an emergency paging device so the kid can be contactable, and can easily reach the parents with separate Mom and Dad instant call keys.

Bottom line: the Firefly is a toy-like panic phone that will calm the nerves of edgy parents. But when the kid hits those touchy pre-teen years, believe me, she won't be caught dead handling a phone with a mommy button!

Day 3: A trip down memory lane

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A plaque marking the garage where the Silicon Valley story began.

Back in the day, Silicon Valley was called "the valley of the heart's delight" -- a land dotted with plum trees and apricot orchards.

In this rural paradise, two young Stanford grads in the 1930s turned a garage into a multi-billion dollar company, Hewlett-Packard.

Today, I made a pilgrimage to that legendary garage on 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto.

Unfortunately, my timing was a bit off.

The garage, along with the shingled two-story home that hovers over it, is undergoing extensive renovation and access is not permitted. I only managed a simple hello to the construction workers and some snapshots of the site beyond the metal fence perimeter.

The HP garage is California's "Historic Landmark No. 976" and labeled the "Birthplace of Silicon Valley."

Before Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Apple's Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, and even before Intel's Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore -- Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were the original geek princes of the Valley.

They settled in the Addison Avenue home in 1938. Dave and his new wife Lucile shared the ground floor flat. Bill claimed the 8 x 18 foot shed.

As for the garage, that became the research lab, where the Model 200A audio oscillator would soon be manufactured and spark the birth of the Valley's first high-tech start up.

As two young men fresh from college and ripe with ideas, Bill and Dave found a home and workshop in Palo Alto for $45 a month in rent.

I'm told that today, rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Valley can go anywhere from $1500 to $3000 a month.

A friend working in the area says a comfortable life requires an annual salary of at least $60,000. Any less and you would be scrounging to make ends meet.

Bill and Dave became entrepreneurial heroes in their own backyard, a backyard they could afford to turn into a home and innovation lab.

It's now a quaint memorial under construction.

Two houses down from the garage and the construction site is a whitewashed three-bedroom cottage. A man touching up the paint said the place is about to list.

The starting price? A cool $1-$1.5 million.

Day 4: Big deals in small town diner

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Kristie with venture capital kingpin Tim Draper

At a small town diner, big deals are being made.

You may not see it on first glance. At Buck's of Woodside, the walls are plastered with old maps, tables are lit by cowboy hats, and box cars hang from the ceiling.

But when a white Hummer is parked outside, you know there's money in the air.

Buck's is nestled between Silicon Valley's multi-million-dollar estates and Sand Hill Road, the Wall Street of the venture capital industry. It's the place where entrepreneurs and VCs talk shop over pancakes and coffee.

I was there this morning to talk "what's next?" with Tim Draper, founder and Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson -- one of the most successful VC firms in the Valley.

Tim's firm is best known for backing Hotmail, the free email service that was later sold to Microsoft.

What's the next Hotmail? Tim points to another DFJ-backed company, Skypeexternal link -- the peer-to-peer Internet telephony network that lets people make free or very cheap calls around the world.

"Hotmail allowed communication through the entire globe through the Internet," Tim told me over a plate of salsa and scrambled egg whites. "Skype pretty much does the same thing, but it uses voice."

"There's a huge opportunity here to turn upside down a trillion-dollar business in telecommunications as Skype becomes the new backbone for a new telecommunications world."

As outrageously bold as that sounds, Skype (which rhymes with "ripe") is already a dominant force. It has the largest number of VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) users, and has notched over 100 million downloads.

And when my mom's gaggle of girlfriends chat casually about their Skype calls to friends and family in China, I know it's going mainstream in a big way.

DFJ firm invested in Skype in March 2004, when a significantly less number of users had downloaded the software.

So how does a VC know when an up-start is on a major up-swing?

Tim says he scouts for trends by listening to entrepreneurs... and reading up on the sci-fi.

"I'm a big science fiction fan," Tim gushed. "'Duneexternal link' helped me to think about what the water sources of the future might look like, and what addictions might emerge."

He also cited Isaac Asimov's epic "Foundation Seriesexternal link" as an oracle for competitive governance, and "Star Trekexternal link" as the blueprint for tomorrow's gadgets like the "tricorder" that can scan a body or an area.

As a reporter, I'm required to chase what's happening in real time. So, it's refreshing to hear someone with a far-reaching perspective.

"We have no idea what's going on now," admitted Tim. "But in about five years we have a pretty good sense about what's gonna happen."

Day 5: That Silicon Valley spirit

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The eBay rock and roll revival

This is one big birthday bash.

About 10,000 people from all over the world are gathering in San Jose this weekend to attend the annual eBay Live! convention and to celebrate the auction site's tenth anniversary.

EBay's senior executives addressed the eBay faithful at the HP Pavilion last night. But this was no staid lecture.

It was a rock and roll revival.

Thousands of eBay traders shook their pompoms, high-fived each other, and swayed to a band's cover version of Neil Young's "Prodigal Son."

Fresh-faced 20-somethings wearing "show your eBay spirit" t-shirts were on hand to keep the party rolling, bumping beach balls into the crowds.

A multimedia presentation played up the community spirit of eBay's some 150 million users and flashed the event's theme, "The power of all of us" -- a preachy slogan that is in fact trademarked.

It's easy to sneer at all of this.

I can't say that I shared the fervor of all those pumped-up eBay loyalists, but I gotta admit -- their enthusiasm was genuine.

They're enthusiastic that eBay's trading platform has given them new ways to make money and friends.

They're enthusiastic that eBay is still built on the belief that people are decent -- that, at least 99% of the time, two strangers can conduct a transaction without a scam.

All this turned eBay into the world's biggest auctioneer and its CEO Meg Whitman one of the most powerful women in corporate America.

And eBay is very grateful, as it should be.

But its trading tribe is a restive bunch. They've complained loudly about fee increases and limited opportunities to grow their businesses.

So the auction giant is making amends.

EBay last night announced the launch of Prostores -- a Web site for traders that have grown too big for the original eBay platform.

"We want to evolve with you," said Meg Whitman. "Many of you thinking about giving up being on eBay, and why not?"

"We want to help sellers grow even if that means off the marketplace -- beginning an exciting new chapter for you and your business, and for us as well."

There's a strong symbiosis at play here. EBay gives entrepreneurs another trading platform, and the entrepreneurs will create an even bigger market than the one eBay enjoys today.

And that's the spirit of the Valley -- take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of you.

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