American Express Launches All-New Digital Payments Platform to Attack PayPal's Bread and Butter

American Express, which is better known for its briefcase-toting corporate users, is unveiling a new business today that addresses a much wider market while also competing head-on with PayPal and other emerging payment platforms.

The service, called Serve, will let consumers make purchases, take cash withdrawals from ATMs and make person-to-person payments from their computer or their phone.

The card will be funded by a user’s bank account or credit or debit card–even from one of the company’s major competitors, like Visa or MasterCard.

In the beginning, Serve will be fairly traditional and be accepted anywhere that American Express is accepted, but eventually it could give way to a mobile payments solution on the phone, using such technologies as near-field communication (NFC).

“What we are trying to do is put into place a platform–not a card, or an e-wallet–that enables digital payments and commerce that allows consumers and merchants to seamlessly move between online and offline,” said Dan Schulman, Group President, Enterprise Growth at American Express.

What Schulman said he wasn’t interested in experimenting with yet was NFC, which allows users to waive their phone at the register to pay. The technology is still in its infancy.

“That’s incredibly uninteresting…That’s a form factor shift, not a value proposition change,” he said. “The distinction between online and offline is going to blur and become moot as you go out three to five years from now.”

Schulman has been thinking about these problems since joining American Express in August 2010.

Previously, he was the president of Sprint’s prepaid division, having joined the third-largest carrier when Sprint acquired prepaid provider Virgin Mobile USA, where he served as CEO.

The Serve platform evolved from American Express’s $300 million acquisition of an Internet-based payments network that was part of America Online Inc. called Revolution Money, co-founder Steve Case’s investment firm.

To be sure, the launch provides new ways for the $54 billion company to diversify its user base.

“This will enable us to break into a younger demographic for sure, or under-served demographics, and people who’ve used debit, checking or cash. It enhances our ability to address different demographics in the U.S., but also the rest of the world,” he said.

On day one, Serve will be accessible online and from applications on both Apple and Android devices, with support for BlackBerry coming soon. Initially it will be in the U.S., but will shortly expand internationally. It will also downplay its associations with the large card company.

“We are really excited about the launch, it’s really different than what people might think about American Express. It’s not AmEx-branded, it’s cross-platform and completely open,” Schulman said.

He expects the platform to be very flexible and adapt to the market in future iterations.

To help promote the platform, the company is creating a number of partnerships that are all over the map.

One is with Ticketmaster, which will let users buy tickets to an event and then get reimbursed by their friends via Serve. Others include Concur and Flipswap. The service will also be available through a Facebook widget. To promote the widget, Serve will be letting users donate to certain causes. Serve will match contributions up to $100,000 for each charity.

While these are new areas that American Express does not currently serve, Schulman believes its experience makes the company a potential leader in digital payments.

He said it helps that they have 90 million card members and have partnerships with thousands of merchants worldwide. Also, he said, there are three crucial pieces of the puzzle that a company entering the space must have: trust, security and good customer service.

Of course, eBay-owned PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and a variety of other startups–including Boku, Zong, BilltoMobile and Square–are all vying for a position in the emerging digital and physical payments market.

Schulman admits there’s a lot of overlap with what it is doing and PayPal. “Yes, there are obviously things that are similar to PayPal. In fact, there are quite a number of people thinking about this as we are making a transition from a physical plastic world to a digitally-oriented payments world.”

For instance, PayPal will be conducting several pilot programs over the next year to test how consumers will use their PayPal accounts at the register.

Visa recently purchased PlaySpan for about $190 million to enter the digital payments world. Google also is planning its next move.

With all this talk about payments, American Express indeed expects to get paid as well.

To start, most consumer fees will be waived for at least the first six months, including fees for adding money to the account and transferring funds between Serve users. The first ATM withdrawal each month is free, but after that consumers will be charged $2. After the introductory period, consumers will be charged 2.9 percent plus 30 cents each time they load money (that drops to 0 percent for cash, debit and ACH).

Merchants will also pay, but will be charged a discounted rate for transactions made in stores and online since Serve is considered a prepaid card. Typically, prepaid discount rates are less expensive than credit rates, according to a spokeswoman.

But its not just the fees that American Express wants to collect. It also wants to collect consumer data to be able to offer well-targeted offers.

“We’ll probably make the equivalent once we are at scale, depending on funding and merchant mix through payments alone. We think that’s a great business. We also think that the data we can collect with consumers, assuming they give permission, will add a number of value-added services in connection with partners.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work