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Attack of the iRobot

It's settled: The robots truly are taking over. Consumer and military robotics specialist iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT  ) proved that humans can be all too human if they're trying to take a shot at the company's earnings power.

Analysts were expecting iRobot to earn $0.09 a share on $53.3 million in revenues for its third quarter. Instead, the company got out a Roomba to sweep Wall Street away: It earned $0.39 a share -- more than four times the estimate -- on $55 million.

The results were mostly in line with last year's third-quarter showing as the company was going public, but few were expecting anything quite like this. The business had actually closed out the first half of the year in the red. Now the only thing disheartening about the iRobot report is that it is still sticking to its summer guidance that called for pretax profits for all of 2006 to come in between breakeven and $3.8 million. That's a bitter pill to swallow -- the business has already produced $5.6 million in pretax income through the first nine months of the year.

A pretax loss likely during the seasonally potent holiday quarter? Ouch!

For an explanation, management is pointing to holiday ad spending to promote its home products as well as ramped-up R&D spending to keep the company's pipeline of exciting robotic applications flowing. In other words, the company sees its huge third-quarter showing as a way to spend aggressively in the current quarter, yet still walk away at the high end of its original 2006 guidance. I'm not really happy about that kind of sandbagging, but I understand the need to invest to stay on the leading edge of robotics.

During last night's conference call, management discussed some of its intriguing creations. By 2008, we can expect the Warrior. Unlike the company's smaller PackBots, which have been aiding troops overseas by defusing roadside bombs, the Warrior is a 250-pound machine that can move at 12 miles per hour and help carry artillery as well as assist soldiers in their missions in other ways. In short, the Warrior will be as close as you can get to having robotic soldiers fighting alongside human combatants. Let your imagination wander, without heading out to rent the Terminator trilogy.

iRobot's presence in the military has been a big driver lately. It has helped offset a decline in home product revenue. However, that dip begs for more clarification. Sales of the Roomba and Scooba products have fallen by 24% through the first nine months of the year, yet the actual sell-through rate of the company's consumer robotics has soared 50% higher. Why the dramatic disparity? Well, in 2005, retailers had to provide iRobot with huge lead times, since its robots were being shipped over from the Far East. Those retailers stocked up early for the holidays. They probably overstocked, too. This year, old retail clients such as Target (NYSE: TGT  ) and more recent partner additions, such as Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) and Stock Advisor recommendation Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) , are just now starting to stock up for the holidays. So even if it seems as if the popularity of the company's home products is waning, the actual sell-through is doing just fine, and we should see the results during the fourth quarter.

The popular Rule Breakers newsletter recommendation is trading around its $24 IPO price. It is. That's disappointing. So is watching profitability float gingerly above the breakeven mark this year. However, there are so many cool things and products brewing at iRobot that it still makes perfect sense as a long-term investment for growth-stock fans. Like its upcoming battlefield automaton, iRobot remains every inch the Warrior.

Feel like a Rule Breaker now, do you? Check out David Gardner's growth-stock newsletter service as part of a free 30-day trial subscription to see whether cool stocks like iRobot belong in your portfolio.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of iRobot, but he does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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Rick Munarriz
TMFBreakerRick

Rick has been writing for Motley Fool since 1995 where he's a Consumer and Tech Stocks Specialist. Yes, that's a long time. He's been an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and a portfolio lead analyst for Motley Fool Supernova since each newsletter service's inception. He earned his BBA and MBA from the University of Miami, and he now lives a block from his alma mater.

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