U.S. Consumers Cool Somewhat On iPhone; Remains 'Most Wanted' Handset

Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) at the moment is not leading the rankings of smartphone vendors when it comes to shipments, but when it comes to mindshare, especially in North America, the company continues to blow away the competition, according to a new survey. Meanwhile, a separate piece of research — which did not include Apple’s mobile devices — found that HTC and Motorola (NYSE: MMI) models are scoring highest with users.

A new survey from ChangeWave Research, polling some 4,000 consumers in the region, paints an interesting picture for how the smartphone market might play out in the next couple of months.

It found that 54 percent of those planning to buy a smartphone in the next 90 days said that they were planning to buy an iPhone. That number is actually down by 11 percent since the last survey taken in September, but still gives the company a massive lead over the next most-popular smartphone brand, Samsung.

ChangeWave also notes that this represents a huge lead especially considering that the company’s last new phone model, the iPhone 4S, came out some two months ago. Overall, Apple has taken a very minimalistic approach to smartphone rollouts compared to companies like HTC, Samsung, and the others, which have dozens of smartphone handset models between them, compared to the three from Apple.

Korea-based Samsung — which last week posted results that showed that at the moment it is the Android handset maker to beat — polled as the most-wanted brand by 13 percent of consumers.

That’s well behind Apple, but still represents a rise of eight percent, the biggest gain of any brand. ChangeWave speculates that the recent launch of the 4G Galaxy Nexus, with the latest version of Android, could have been behind some of that bigger-than-average rise.

Another Android maker, Motorola, at seven percent, posted a slight increase of two percent over the last-polled period — a contrast to the sales decline Motorola expects to report for the quarter just ended. Motorola is currently getting acquired by Google (NSDQ: GOOG) for $12.5 billion.

HTC and RIM (NSDQ: RIMM), meanwhile, rounded out the brands and both declined. This is not much of a surprise: HTC has had a mixed set of results over the last couple of quarters (with more recent numbers being declines) and recently downgraded its forecasts. RIM, too, has been seeing declines in sales and much else: ChangeWave notes that since peaking in September 2008, RIM has declined in eight of the last 12 quarterly surveys conducted by the researchers.

Current customer satisfaction. What’s driving the customer buying intentions? One big area, contends ChangeWave, is existing customer satisfaction, with largely mirror buying intentions — with three notable exceptions.

As with buying intent, Apple continues to top the polls for customer satisfaction, with the most recent numbers indicating that 75 percent of current iPhone owners consider themselves “very satisfied.”

Then it gets somewhat confusing: Android makers Samsung and HTC tie with a 47 percent rating, while Motorola comes in fourth at 45 percent. LG (SEO: 066570) and Nokia don’t make the top-five buying intentions but they still score higher than RIM in terms of keeping customers happy. In other words, brands like HTC, LG and Nokia are keeping their current owners happy enough, but they are not able to convey that very well to the marketplace at the moment.

Separately to this, we’ve received some other survey results from Mobile Posse, a homescreen messaging and marketing company, on a survey they’ve been conducting with new handset owners in the U.S. — a rolling list of around 100,000, which gets polled monthly.

These results don’t compare different brands or models to each other, per se, but they do take stock of how satisfied a current owner is with his or her new handset. This is done through a pop-up screen on the device itself, and is done in cooperation with the handset makers, who agree to allow the messaging on their devices. The messages come up within 48 hours of the phones being activated and cover some 100 models from 10 handset makers including HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Pantech, RIM, Samsung, Casio and PCD.

Mobile Posse found that, in contrast to ChangeWave’s overall brand satisfaction rankings, the two devices that ranked the highest in its survey were, surprisingly, some older models: the HTC Hero (mean score: 4.3) and the Motorola Electrify (mean score: 4.4). The lowest scoring models averaged mean scores of 3.8, although Mobile Posse does not specify which device this was.

There are a couple of big caveats to this data. For starters, Apple is not on the list so you are unable to have a comparative score for how its devices compare; ditto companies like Nokia (NYSE: NOK). Similarly, it’s not clear which models, exactly, are included in the poll, so again its difficult to know if the Motorola Electrify or the HTC Hero actually scored better than, say, a Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

One end note: Mobile Posse’s research also threw a bit of light onto the usefulness of buying intent information — or not, as the case may be.

It found that 43 percent of those being polled were decided buyers — meaning that they knew exactly what they wanted to buy before they bought it. But almost just as many — 34 percent — were undetermined. Combining that with 11 percent saying they were “converted” to a particular device at the point of sale, that means there is still a lot to play for between buying intent and actually forking out the dough. (And it also explains why Apple’s singular retail strategy is so clever: give users no other options to change to except for their own models.)