Mobile is here to stay, and publishers are eager to embrace it, even if figuring out how to is not an easy task.

Thus far, publishers have focused much of their effort on building native mobile apps, and it’s no surprise why: mobile apps are being downloading at a frantic pace.

According to a recent report by IHS Screen Digest, the top four mobile app stores may generate close to $4bn in revenue this year, and ABI Research has forecast that by 2016, consumers will download 44bn mobile apps.

Mobile apps, of course, aren’t without their disadvantages. One of the biggest: publishers have to develop their apps for different platforms, like iOS and Android. And even within some of those platforms, there can be significant fragmentation amongst versions.

Such disadvantages are often considered an inconvenient fact of life because the advantages of mobile apps (access to hardware-level functionality, built-in monetization through app stores, an on-screen icon, etc.) can’t be ignored.

So is the idea of a vibrant mobile web that lives on the mobile browser dead? Perhaps not, at least in the eyes of one large publisher, Fortune. As reported by AdAge, it has built a new app as a true web app. Fortune500+, which provides access to company information, doesn’t need to be downloaded; it runs on popular mobile and web browsers.

It’s a simple concept, but Fortune’s approach is certainly not typical. That’s because despite the technical appeal of web apps, consumer preference seems to favor native apps.

As one app builder told AdAge, “The problem is [web apps don’t] take full advantage of each individual platform. You
end up with a mediocre product across all platforms as opposed to a superior
product on individual platforms

But is that really true? In many cases, a well-designed app doesn’t need access to hardware-level functionality, like an accelerometer. While the native user experience may in many cases be more familiar to consumers, there’s an argument to be made that sometimes taking “full advantage” of platforms results in sexy apps that are more sizzle than substance.

Take, for instance, PushPop Press, which teamed up with Al Gore to develop an iOS app called Our Choice. It’s very pretty, but as one commenter put it, looks like it was based on the CD-ROM model of publishing. Microsoft Encarta, anybody?

At the end of the day, publishers can’t ignore market trends and consumer preferences. So it’s not entirely surprising that Fortune plans native versions of its Fortune500+ app. But this highlights an interesting strategy publishers may want to consider: develop new apps as web apps, and turn them into native apps when they’ve been validated.

With this approach, publishers may find that it is possible to get the best of both worlds, ending once and for all the web app versus native app debate.