Some earnings reports are so predictable you can set your watch to them. You know the ones I'm talking about: the uber-profitable monsters that always beat Wall Street's estimates. The two titans of computing -- Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) -- have been among this group for years. Last summer, Mr. Softy finally came up short. Yesterday, it was Intel's turn when the chip maker missed the Street's earnings-per-share prediction by a penny in its first-quarter 2004 results.

Missed estimates always make for big news on Wall Street, especially when a stalwart like Intel is involved. Predictably, investors dumped Intel shares in after-hours trading, sending the stock lower by 1.5%. Of course, if you asked any of these investors what about Intel's business caused them to suddenly run for the door, the answer is likely to be something like "they reported bad news" or "the stock was going lower; I didn't want to lose money."

Folks, that's a very un-Foolish reaction. Let's take a look at the numbers. Net income for the first quarter was $1.7 billion, or $.0.26 a share, up 86% from the same period a year ago. That's a blowout quarter by almost any measure, except that the Street expected $0.27 a stub. What caused the shortfall? Intel took a $162 million charge against its cost of sales, created when it agreed last month to pay $225 million in a patent infringement settlement with Intergraph (NASDAQ:INGR). Intel says the deal impacted per-share earnings by roughly $0.017.

To be sure, there are real reasons for concern over Intel. Heck, I've documented a couple of them, such as its mid-quarter revenue adjustment and its choice to followAdvanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD) in introducing 32-bit and 64-bit combination chips. But if not for these issues, and Intel's documented problems getting its latest Pentium 4 chips into the hands of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), I'd be tempted to buy the stock.

Predictions aside, what's most important about yesterday's earnings report is the lesson it provides. Part of the job of researching stocks -- and it is work -- requires knowing when news that looks bad is actually good. And vice versa.

So, how do I view Intel's unmet expectations? To borrow from our muse, William Shakespeare, it's much ado about nothing.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers sometimes misses his wife's estimates for when he'll take out the trash. He owns no stake in any of the companies mentioned, and you can view his Fool profile here.