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American Express enters the 'payment 2.0' fray

The financial services company launches Serve.com, a PayPal-like platform that's designed to bring digital and mobile payments to new markets.

It was only a matter of time: American Express has taken a full-out dive into the crowded and ambiguous space full of companies both big and small that are trying to figure out the future of consumer payment transactions. The company today announced Serve, a set of applications designed to let users make payments more easily online or with mobile phones via special accounts funded by credit cards, debit cards, or bank accounts. With this product, the company "aims to expand into new segments of the market that do not rely on traditional charge and credit cards to manage their day-to-day finances."

It's pretty obviously inspired by the decade-plus-long rise and success of PayPal (which has been owned by eBay since 2002), but Serve is also inflected with more recent trends in digital payments. The announcement comes just weeks after a report that Google was partnering with MasterCard and Citigroup on mobile transactions and when one of the hottest buzz terms in the mobile world is near-field communication, a technology that could make payment by cell phone much more widespread. Relatively young companies like Zong and Boku are striking deals in an attempt to make the mobile phone the centerpiece of personal finance.

Meanwhile, on the small-business commerce front, there's been a showdown between start-up Square, which has earned the loyalty of the Silicon Valley set, and market leader VeriFone, which has launched an anti-Square marketing campaign that claims the upstart competitor is unsafe.

Serve moves into this business market, too, American Express executives say.

"We intend to quickly evolve the Serve platform by adding new features and functionality as we learn from consumer and merchant experiences," Dan Schulman, American Express president of enterprise growth, said in a release. "To encourage a broad cross-section of people to experience the benefits and convenience of Serve, we are working with a range of partners to integrate Serve as a payment method and deliver customized offers, and we will waive most consumer fees for the next six months."

These fees will be "highly competitive" when instated, the release said.

Among the partners co-opting Serve as a platform are Ticketmaster, which will use the new software to make it possible for ticket buyers to get paid back more easily by their event-going companions, and electronics recycling company Flipswap, which will use it to issue refunds for traded-in gadgets.

Individual Serve users can access their accounts through the main Serve.com site, through iPhone and Android applications and, most interestingly, through Facebook. They can segment their accounts into "sub-accounts" that can be accessed by different people with varying amounts of control, like a teenager for allowance or a household employee like a pet-sitter.

American Express is also encouraging the use of Serve by nonprofits; five charities, including Save The Children and Malaria No More, are using Serve "donation widgets" to promote and encourage fundraising through the new platform.