They had me at the Iron Man reference.
Intel (INTC) stole the show at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, introducing a "smart bowl" that will wirelessly charge your phone and other gadgets, a "smart onesie" that lets parents monitor their baby's vital signs, and-my personal favorite - Jarvis, a smart, always-on Bluetooth earpiece that essentially does what the iPhone's Siri does but without having the inconvenience of taking your phone out of your pocket. Jarvis is also far more proactive than Siri; rather than simply answer questions, Jarvis will offer unsolicited suggestions, will rearrange your calendar for you and will even nag you to call your wife.
Jarvis is, of course, named after the digital assistant created by Tony Stark in the Iron Man comic book and movie franchise. Alas, there was no prototype of a flying robotic suit at the CES.
All of these products are novelties, and none are likely to reinvent Intel as a company the way the original iPod and iTunes combo reinvented Apple (AAPL). But all are fine examples of Intel's strategy for the future: making "everything smart" in the internet of things.
What does this mean to those of us who don't speak geek fluently?
Think about the smart onesie I mentioned above. Your baby could send a signal to the bottle warmer in your kitchen to prepare his or her midnight snack.
In a nutshell, rather than run as a "me too" smartphone manufacturer or mobile chip maker, Intel is taking the lead in making your appliances, gadgets and, yes, even your clothes talk to each other. And their vehicle for doing this is Edison, a Pentium-class computer the size and shape of an SD card you might put in a digital camera. Despite its small size, it has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity.
The beauty of Edison is that it can be used virtually everywhere. Your coffee pot could start brewing when your smart pillow detected that you were starting to stir. Your car could start itself and get the heater running on cold winter mornings when you put your breakfast plates in the smart dishwasher. The possibilities are literally endless.
Intel needs this. While I never subscribed to the bearish argument that the PC platform was dying and pulling Intel into the grave with it, Intel's core PC processor design and manufacturing is a mature business with limited growth potential. The growth of mobile devices and cloud computing have been a boon to Intel's server business. But even within servers, companies are learning to do more with less via distributed processors. If Intel wants to be a true growth stock again, it needs to create fundamentally new markets. And the Edison platform has the potential to do that.
It is too early to say who will become the dominant player in the internet of things. Apple, Google (GOOG) and Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) were the obvious winners of the mobile computing revolution of the past decade, just as Microsoft (MSFT), Cisco (CSCO) and Intel were the winners of the PC and early internet age. Yet each of these big technology companies suffers from the same problems today: all of their products - yes, even smartphones - are mature and their markets are quickly getting saturated.
Think I'm exaggerating? Read Samsung's last earnings release. Despite having a cutting-edge line of smartphones that can go head to head with Apple's iPhone, Samsung is having a hard time maintaining profitability.
Returning to Intel, what might Edison and Jarvis mean for Intel stock?
I would think of them as embedded call options. If they never get off the ground, then they expire worthless and the value of Intel is its core PC and server chip businesses. But if they are successful in spurring a "smart everything" revolution, then Intel stock could be the next Apple.
At current prices, it's hard to see a lot of risk here. Intel stock trades for just 13 times earnings, and its 3.5% dividends makes it one of the highest-yielding large-cap stocks on the U.S. exchanges. The market appears to be valuing Intel's smart initiatives at pretty close to zero - implying that you're risking next to nothing in buying Intel stock at these prices.
It may seem absurd right now to suggest that Intel is the next Apple. But then, back in 2000, Apple was a struggling also-ran in the PC wars. And then along came the iPod…
Disclosure: As of this writing, the author was long INTC, MSFT and CSCO.