Editor's note: Amy Gahran writes about mobile tech for CNN.com. She is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and media consultant whose blog, Contentious.com, explores how people communicate in the online age.
(CNN) -- If you own a 2011 Dodge, you might want to check out out the new Dodge smartphone app for your vehicle, which includes a digital owner's manual. Hopefully, this will grow as a trend among vehicle manufacturers.
Recently Chrysler debuted fee apps for several popular 2011 Dodge models. They're available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.
Listed in the Android marketplace, I saw apps for the Durango, Grand Caravan, Charger, Avenger, and Journey. These apps include:
• Access to Chrysler's Mopar customer care, 24-hour roadside assistance, and parts and accessories
• Vehicle feature video demonstrations
• Maintenance tracking
• Service contract info and online access
• Social media connections to Chrysler, Dodge and fellow Dodge owners
• General vehicle information (operation, maintenance, dashboard, warranty)
Even though most drivers keep their car's printed owner's manual in the glove box, I think repackaging this content in a smartphone app -- with access to additional services and context -- is a smart move for car makers, drivers and potentially also related service companies or organizations.
That said, I checked out the Dodge Durango Android app, and it had some downsides. For instance, several of the photos appeared as small thumbnails that could not be enlarged for easier viewing.
Chrysler isn't the only car maker offering vehicle-specific apps -- but so far the apps have mainly been designed for alternative fuel vehicles. For instance, there's an iPhone-only app for the Toyota Prius. Also, GigaOm recently reported that Ford will offer an app to improve power management and trip planning for the upcoming Ford Focus electric car.
Overlooked in the owner's manual app approach is the opportunity to update vehicle manual content in response to feedback from car owners.
Generally, owner's manuals for any type of equipment are not always as clear as they could be. It would be great if this app included a way for owners to ask questions, complain, or recommend changes about specific content pages in the app. Then, the car maker could collect that information, look for ways that the manual could be enhanced, and deliver the enhanced content to the app with regular updates. The social media connections offered by this app could also help on that front.
It also would be good to see manuals for older models packaged in apps as well. Right now you can download the PDF version of the owner's manual or repair manual for almost any vehicle make, model and year. You can load PDFs onto a smartphone -- I generally use Evernote for this. However, PDF files are unwieldy to navigate and read on a smartphone. Apps are a more user-friendly way to package this content.
While it makes sense to offer apps for new-model vehicles for free, car makers could probably find a paying audience for apps for older-model vehicles. If the car makers don't jump on this, I'll bet some other publisher would be eager to exploit this market.
There's no reason to limit the manual-app strategy to cars. As an avid bicyclist, I'd love to have an app for my bike, which showed demonstrations of basic repairs, listed exact sizes and info for parts and accessories, etc. There are several apps, free and for sale, for bike repair, but they're generic -- and bike models are quite unique.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Gahran.