dolphin_browser_applogo_by_pilgrim_ivanhoe-d5f59vxMoboTap has released a major update of its popular Dolphin mobile browser today, but the new features inadvertently highlight the weaknesses of the Sequoia-backed startup’s mobile-first approach.

In an update that the MoboTap team calls “HUGE,” Dolphin has benefited from an integration with Evernote and Box, more convenient social sharing mechanisms, and the addition of cross-device synching features, including WiFi broadcasting and interoperability with Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.

MoboTap calls Dolphin the number one third-party mobile browser, and it pioneered the use of gestures and voice for search. Started in Beijing by a former Microsoft developer, the company has bet large on mobile, targeting Android first, and then the iPhone and the iPad. In May 2011, it closed a Series A round of $10 million, led by Sequoia Capital. It remains one of the most customizable mobile browsers, and a popular one. With 50 million instals, it has a 4.5-star rating in the App Store from more than 16,000 reviews, and the same rating from 950,000 reviews in Google Play.

The new features are, true to form, slick and easy to use, making the Dolphin experience even faster and more versatile than before. Take the WiFi broadcast, for instance, an innovation developed in the Beijing office (MoboTap also has offices in San Francisco and Tokyo). The feature lets users share Web content between devices that are using the same WiFI connection. No need for extraneous apps.

Sharing content to Twitter, Facebook, and Evernote, is also now much easier on Dolphin, although it is not the “one-tap” experience that its press release advertises. Actually, it takes three taps: one to expand the toolbar that sits at the bottom of a page, one to hit “share,” and then one to send the message to whatever service you choose (add an extra tap if you want to switch between whatever service you had up last and a new one). Still, that’s nit-picking, because the function is elegantly built into the browser and beats what Chrome and Safari have to offer.

The part that exposes the biggest flaw in MoboTap’s strategy, however, is in the cross-device synching and sharing. The company boasts that the update now lets you automatically synch Web pages from Dolphin to your desktop, by way of extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Unfortunately for MoboTap, that’s just a giant reminder that it doesn’t have a desktop browser – a severe handicap when compared to its competition. Chrome, for instance, doesn’t need to rely on third-party extensions for cross-device synching – that’s all native to its browser, which behaves like its the same thing whether it’s on desktop, smartphone, or tablet. So, if I’m using Chrome on my iPhone, I can easily switch to my Macbook and pick up where I left off without having to worry about installing or using an extension.

At the time Dolphin launched in 2011, the mobile-first approach seemed to make a lot of sense. There were no great browsers for mobile, and Dolphin’s gesture- and voice-based product seemed to play more nicely with the platform than did, say, Safari. Today, however, not having a desktop version – in other words, not being universal – is a bold-face shortcoming. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the increased prevalence of mobile devices in our computing lives hasn’t resulted in a stronger need for a mobile-first browser – instead, it has emphasized the importance of the cloud-based computing experience, one that should be accessible instantly and seamlessly regardless of device.

When Dolphin launched, it also had the advantage of being the best provider of voice search. It has now lost that edge. Google’s voice search is at least as good as Dolphin’s, and on Android devices it’s accessible with one tap from the homescreen. Plus, Dolphin also charges 99 cents for its voice search, erecting a barrier when one could argue that it really doesn’t need to give users any more reasons not to use it.

One advantage Dolphin has, however, is that it is a player in three major markets: the US, China, and Japan. Because it has local teams in each market, MoboTap has made an effort to build a product that not only understands the different languages, but also the cultural nuances of each place, which, as eBay will tell you after its failed first venture in China, can make or break a company. It also has a useful deal with Japan’s number two carrier, KDDI, which means that the browser is pre-loaded into some of the Android devices the telco sells.

Ultimately, however, one has to wonder if the international strengths will be enough for Dolphin to ever break out from being a niche player among Web browsers. While Dolphin may be swimming in international waters, it needs to drop the mobile-first mindset and devise a universal strategy.

[Art by Pilgrim Ivanhoe]