Over the past few years, I’ve handled hundreds of client inquiries on mobile app development approaches. The most common? “Should we go with a native development approach, use HTML5, or go hybrid?”

The answer I give (“It depends”) isn’t simply an analyst’s cop-out. Legitimate reasons drive development teams to choose one (or more) approaches to developing mobile apps. In fact, only 21% of developers say that they use only one approach. The choice isn’t a question of either/or, but rather which will achieve your objectives while supporting overall organizational needs. Key questions to consider include “Who is the intended audience?” “What goals are they trying to achieve?” and “What strategy will best engage our target customers?”

This decision is driven by two factors: the importance of the mobile user experience, and the labor and capital investment requirements. But keep in mind that native, Web-based and hybrid approaches each have unique strengths and challenges.

Native apps maximize performance and user experience
Native development is, on average, the most widely adopted approach. Forrester’s latest Business Technographics Global Developer Survey found that, overall, developers build native apps 38% of the time, hybrid apps 22% of the time, and Web apps 27% of the time. That’s not surprising: Native apps offer a great combination of performance and user experience. And when done right, they deliver a high level of customer satisfaction compared to Web applications, as well as enable superior offline processing and storage capability.

But regardless of these benefits, native apps are a challenge to maintain. Developers we’ve worked with report porting costs of 50% to 70% of the cost of the original app for every new mobile operating system the app needs to run on. Plan to support iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows? That’s an increase in development costs of 150% to 210%.

Web apps minimize costs and improve agility
While developers on average spend more time building native apps, at least 74% spend time building with a Web-based approach. But with native’s advantages in performance and user satisfaction, why would anyone want to use Web technologies?

Unless an unlimited development budget is available, taking a native-only approach exceeds the reach of many development teams. A good rule of thumb is to estimate 20% to 25% in additional porting costs when using Web technologies, significantly less than the cost of an all-native approach.

It’s also important to note that with native, teams should be prepared to pay top dollar to hire talent or expect to ramp up existing developers as they learn new languages. With a Web approach, teams can repurpose Web developers. Web apps also fit the bill in situations where information or functionality changes fast, whereas native, hybrid or middleware-based apps need to be approved by Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft or BlackBerry before they can enter app stores.

About Michael Facemire

Michael Facemire is a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research serving Application Development & Delivery professionals. Learn more about his research here.