IPhone rides Verizon to gain preference edge over Android

Apple (s aapl), as many a commenter to our blog has pointed out, isn’t interested in market share so much as profits. But it’s finding increasingly that it might not have to settle for just one as it expands distribution, adds more improvements to its platform and looks at lower price points.

A new ChangeWave consumer survey found Apple has slightly widened its preference lead among smartphone owners preparing to buy a handset in the next three months. The survey of 4,163 consumers found 46 percent of smartphone consumers in June preferred to buy an iPhone, up slightly from 44 percent in March. Interest in Android (s goog) also inched up from 31 percent in March to 32 percent in June. But it’s a sign that the iPhone could be headed for strong sales in the second half of the year as the next iPhone model launches.

Prior to this year, consumer preference for Apple was basically tied with Android: 36 percent for iOS to 35 percent for Android in December and 38 percent to 37 percent in September. What’s changed? Apple started offering the iPhone on Verizon Wireless (s vz) in February, basically doubling distribution for the handset in the U.S. That has helped spur on the iPhone and apparently slowed the rise of Android, as we’ve pointed out. And as ChangeWave notes, it has also hurt Motorola (s mmi), who had relied a lot on Verizon in the past and whose consumer preference is now down by 4 points to 8 percent.

The iPhone still has runway ahead, especially if it continues to expand to more carriers and perhaps offers cheaper models. The iPhone has been outsold by Android over the last year even though it consistently has been preferred over Android by smartphone buyers in ChangeWave surveys. Now that it’s more widely available, more consumers are able to buy the device and more are also signaling their intent to do so. With fewer carrier restrictions, we may see a bigger lift as this preference lead translates into bigger sales, especially if Apple announces a deal with Sprint (s s) or T-Mobile.

Now, users can say one thing, but do something else when it comes down to buying. Android can be a very appealing choice when it’s being shown off by a sales person. Numerous models at cheaper price points can also help convince users to go with Android. That’s why Apple’s upcoming iOS 5 improvements are also a boost because they’re addressing some nagging issues like notifications, which are holding back the platform compared to rivals. That might have helped inch up consumer intent in June, following Apple’s unveiling of iOS 5 at the Worldwide Developers Conference. And if Apple can follow through on a cheaper iPhone model, something it said it’s interested in, it might further even the playing field.

What’s increasingly clear is that Android and iOS are in a race of their own right now. Preference for Research In Motion’s BlackBerry OS (s rimm) fell to 4 percent in June, the lowest result since ChangeWave began its quarterly surveys in January 2008. In consumer satisfaction among existing users, iOS trumps the field with 70 percent of users very satisfied, compared to 50 percent for Android, 27 percent for Windows OS (s msft) and 26 percent for BlackBerry. Interestingly, when Windows Phone 7 is broken out apart from the older Windows Mobile platform, its satisfaction rating is 57 percent, ahead of Android. That’s a sign that Microsoft has a strong platform on its hands that will only get better with the upcoming Mango update and Nokia (s nok) support. It just needs to push harder on selling and marketing its devices.

As I said earlier, Apple doesn’t chase market share just for the sake of it, and is happy to suck down an estimated half of the handset industry’s profits. But with preference so high for iOS, there’s no reason why it can’t grab a bigger share. Will it eclipse Android? Maybe not when you consider all the different Android models available. But Apple has more levers to pull, and it’s showing it can goose sales if it wants to.