Meet HighNote, the high-powered chat app

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a race among a handful of apps competing to become the coolest, most efficient chat app.

HighNote is the latest mobile application seeking to make text chat more fun. It provides a cornucopia of new ways to communicate creatively with your friends. It lets you send a basic text message to your friends, but you can customize your text in different ways, including with different color, fonts and sizes — and then add attachments of up to nine different forms of media — from photos to videos, maps, music and audio files. And that’s just the beginning.

It remains to be seen, however, if users will want to use all of the features, or if they’ll fall back to using the more basic chat features that are already offered by competitors PingChat and Kik.

HighNote launches tonight with iPhone and Android versions.

HighNote joins a number of other next-generation mobile messaging apps, from Kik on the more Spartan side, to WhatsApp and PingChat, which also offer more multi-media chat features. Then there’s GroupMe, which focuses on group messaging, and Beluga, which has gotten attention for mixing both group and media features. It lets you share things like photos and your location, and also maps the location of your friends.

All of these apps are in a race to fill what their founders see is a gaping void in smartphone communication. SMS is hugely popular, but at the same time it’s outmoded: It doesn’t allow users to use the full power of their phones.

On the other hand, services like Facebook, where users are spending more time, are too public or too complex to enable quick and creative chat while on the go.

The builders of these new apps are hoping to gain profile at the upcoming SXSW conference in Austin — the place where Twitter and FourSquare first ignited in a big way.

Like many of these players, Highnote, based in San Francisco, runs its app on Internet Protocol and not on top of paid chat — making it free for users.

Marc Barach, chief executive, told me he hopes HighNote’s music sharing features will be popular, because there’s still no easy way to do that. HighNote integrates with iTunes music and video — letting you choose and play popular rated music from  your app dashboard, for example. (See the video demo below, in which HighNote chief marketing officer Jeanine LeFlore demonstrates the app’s basic features.)

The app also offers more than 40 templates for greeting messages. The company is already thinking about how to monetize the app. A feature called “Pulse” lets users opt in to receive information they are interested in, for example music, sports, celebrity gossip and fashion. If a user picks music, HighNote may direct users to an interactive quiz about music. This also provides a place users can hang out while waiting for a response from a friend.

If you want to message a friend who doesn’t have HighNote, the app sends them an SMS message containing a link that brings up the full message in their web browser.

Blackberry, Nokia and Symbian versions will be released in mid-February, the company says. A Mobile Windows version will come in March.