December is already upon us and soon the year 2000 will land in history books. It seems that we just published our last column of 1999, Welcoming a New Age, and now this new age has slapped us in the face. Hey, we were due! The stock market's record advance needed to inevitably result in a negative year or two, as has been said jovially, Foolishly, right here, many times in the past few years: "This can't last forever!"

Entering December, our portfolio is down more than 45% -- a whopper loss. As a result, 2000 promises to be the portfolio's first negative one-year (January to January) return in its entire six-year history. The next link shows the portfolio's performance since launching August 4, 1994: Historical Annual Performance Table.

Every year is positive! Eyeing the table -- especially with hindsight -- it's apparent that the Nasdaq was due to retreat at some point (it always does), as was our portfolio. Annual Nasdaq gains of 39%, 22%, and 85% year after year are, of course, unsustainable. As Matt Richey suggested in Monday's Rule Maker column, How to Endure Bear Markets, the stock market indices will likely return to a more normal return over the long term, meaning around 11% annualized.

We're ready for that! In fact, we never expect more from the market, but we're trying to beat the average return by investing in great Rule Breaking companies -- companies that are, of course, not without faults.

On Wednesday, David critiqued each of our holdings, including eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY), and on Thursday Brian continued the critique of America Online (NYSE: AOL). Let's consider how these companies are improving their services with new offerings.

"Buy it Now" on eBay
One criticism of eBay is that its auction format doesn't appeal to everyone. To combat this, eBay continually makes tracking, buying, and paying for items on the site much easier. It also bought, which sells items at a fixed price. Finally, eBay just began testing a new service called "Buy It Now." The company hasn't announced the service because it's still in testing. If it works, eBay will keep it and begin charging a small fee for it.

Buy It Now allows sellers to list items on eBay for immediate sale at a set price. Once an item is listed with the Buy It Now option, a buyer has the opportunity to buy it immediately, for a set price, as long as no one else has started to bid on the item. Once a normal bid is placed, the Buy It Now option goes away and the auction runs as normal. This structure maintains the integrity of the original auction format, while also allowing eager buyers to purchase items immediately before any bids are placed. This may prove valuable during the holiday gift-buying season.

Last week, eBay also unveiled an initiative to become the "operating system" of online commerce across many Internet sites, by allowing sites the use of eBay's technology to sell items. This interesting news was posted first on the new Fool Network News for eBay. (Fool Network News is where you can post and rate any news or articles from the Web about any company.)

AOL's New Version 6.0
AOL's customer satisfaction is reportedly dismal, as Brian wrote yesterday. Apparently, customers (in the survey anyway) still have problems with the service. Maybe AOL's new Version 6.0, which is easier to use, will help.

AOL 6.0 certainly does address Brian's one large criticism: the AOL Web browser. In 6.0, the browser works extremely well with Windows 98 and 98 Second Edition -- it often works even more quickly than an external browser. I shared several other AOL Version 6.0 changes on our AOL discussion board. In summary, I believe that both AOL and eBay are improving in the areas that we critiqued the past two days.

Want to buy any stocks now?
Human nature is funny: Most everyone wants to buy stocks when they're rising to record highs, but few people want to buy those same stocks as they're falling to prices that are 80% lower! Did you always wish that you'd bought Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO)? Well, it isn't $250 per share anymore. It's now about $35 per share. Still want some? Why not?

At $31 per share, eBay trades at about 77 times year 2001 earnings estimates, while earnings should grow more than 100% that year. eBay trades at about 48 times potential year 2002 earnings, lower than Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO) earnings multiple. Want to buy some? No? Take a look at Brian Graney's article from earlier this week about the stock market's next great investments and contrarian investors such as Warren Buffett, and you might change your mind.

Fool on!