American Express Co. this week signaled its plans to tap into new mobile and prepaid payment technologies that will include "debit-like" products, but it may have far to go before it catches up with its competitors in mobile payments.

In an Oct. 26 memo, Dan Schulman, who joined Amex in August as group president of the Enterprise Growth Organization, said Amex has created an online and mobile business unit to focus on mobile and emerging payments technologies. Amex formed Enterprise Growth last year to help develop new business opportunities in a variety of channels.

Amex has renamed Revolution Money, the online credit card processing company Amex acquired early this year, Serve Enterprise, and it will fall under the new unit's management. Serve Enterprise will support the company's future digital payment initiatives and all payment forms outside of Amex's traditional charge and credit products, Schulman said.

The online and mobile unit, staffed so far with former executives of wireless carriers, is charged with building a "very large subscriber base" the company hopes will generate significant revenue within the next three to five years.

Schulman, who was chief executive of Virgin Mobile USA before its acquisition last year by Sprint Nextel Corp., has appointed David Messenger, Virgin Mobile's former chief operating officer, as head of the new unit. Peter Lurie, previously Virgin Mobile's general counsel, is senior vice president of strategic partnerships and business development. Jason Alexander, who previously handled portfolio management and planning for Nokia, is vice president of strategic program management.

Amex also formed a Global Payment Options group charged with developing "payment forms outside of our traditional charge and credit products," Schulman said. These include prepaid reloadable cards and gift cards, mobile airtime cards, payroll cards, international and domestic person-to-person remittances, virtual currencies, government-backed benefit and insurance claim cards, and "debit-like service propositions."

Additionally, the company has started an Enterprise Growth Strategy team headed by Chitra Narasimhan, who has served on Amex's mergers and acquisitions team since it was founded in 2003, Schulman said.

Also forming is a Digital Council to be led by David Messenger and made up of Amex business-unit leaders. Messenger's team in the online and mobile unit, meanwhile, has the task of developing strategic partnerships with "key online players," Schulman said.

Amex's moves, particularly in hiring former top telco execs, are part of an effort to "play catch-up" with other issuers and networks, said Red Gillen, a senior analyst with Celent.

"While the mobile payments industry has not really materialized yet, where it has moved so far is ahead of Amex," Gillen said. "Most of the top issuers and payment networks have launched noteworthy mobile payment pilot programs by this time, and Amex has not made much noise."

An Aug. 2 report that several major wireless carriers and two financial services providers were collaborating to create a system to let consumers make purchases with their phones has heightened competition in the payments industry, Gillen said.

Still, other mobile players are feeling the pressure.

"In order to be successful, mobile payments will need some kind of breakthrough element harnessing loyalty or unique marketing and promotions," Gillen said. "It is still early in the game, and there is still time for Amex to catch up and make a big play."