Apple could be making plans for a big role in mobile Near Field Communications (NFC) with the recent hiring of Benjamin Vigier as its product manager of mobile commerce.

Future iPhones and other Apple devices could be converted to mobile wallets, allowing users to quickly pass or tap a phone over a receiver using the NFC short-range wireless specification.

Nokia has made inroads in NFC, but is not considered a strong mobile phone competitor in the US.

"Apple could finally bring NFC to the masses," wrote NFC expert Bob Egan, global head of research for Tower Group, in a tweet today, regarding the hiring of Vigier.

Egan noted too that Apple is a "magical marketing powerhouse" with a large patent portfolio and widespread distribution alliances that would help Vigier and Apple.

Part of Egan's optimism is based on Vigier's strong resume, as detailed on LinkedIn .

Neither Vigier nor Apple could not be reached for comment on his role at the company. Vigier arrived in July at Apple, and previously was product manager for mobile wallet, payment and NFC at mFoundry, where he conceived and managed the Starbucks mobile payment system on the iPhone and Paypal Mobile, which is featured on BlackBerry and some other phones.

Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans said the Vigier hiring is sign that Apple is "moving forward fast" into NFC , possibly with iPhone 5 next year.

Evans noted a 2009 Apple patent for building an NFC antenna into a touchscreen, as well as other patents for ticketing and even use of the service name iPay.

NFC is more popular in Japan than anywhere else, although adoption in the US is considered slow, perhaps due to US consumers' concerns about security with mobile payments. Generator Research recently said that mobile payments would hit $633 billion in 2014, up from 68 billion in 2009.

Gartner said recently that mobile payments would reach the mainstream in 2012 , when 3% of all mobile device users will be making mobile payments. While a small percentage of the total, that represents 190 million users.

Gartner puts NFC in a list of mobile payment technologies that also include SMS (Short Message Service), Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and Unstructure Supplementary Service Data (USSD), which is not used in the US.

In other payment system news, Google said on Monday that it bought Jambool, a company that makes a platform for managing online payments for virtual goods sold on gaming and social networking sites.