An interesting scoop over at the New York Times, citing “people close to the company” as saying that Facebook is looking to launch its own smartphone by next year, apparently tapping the collective talent of Apple’s former hardware and software engineers.

The social networking giant has already poached a bunch of engineers who worked on the iPhone and iPad projects. It’s Facebook’s third attempt at making a phone, one that’ll undoubtedly add to bad blood that’s been brewing between Facebook and Apple for quite some time now.

That said, a Facebook phone makes sense to us. The company pretty much sucks in mobile. Up until recently, they’ve been releasing and updating native applications for smartphones at a snail’s pace. If a phone is what they need to gain more credibility in mobile, so be it – though Tim Cook won’t like this.

This not-so-secret plan might also explain why a system-wide Facebook integration was a no-go in iOS 5, though code hooks are still in place. Let’s also not forget that Facebook pulled integration from Apple’s Ping social network for iTunes music.

Yup, looks like Apple can safely put Facebook on its growing list of powerful rivals, right below Google and of course Samsung…

The social networking giant had been whispered to build its own phone in the past, but it’s different this time around. Nick Bilton, writing for the New York Times’ Bits blog, explains:

Employees of Facebook and several engineers who have been sought out by recruiters there, as well as people briefed on Facebook’s plans, say the company hopes to release its own smartphone by next year. These people spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their employment or relationships with Facebook.

This is not to be confused with another project code-named “Buffy” involving Facebook and HTC which failed to produce tangible results, if you exclude last year’s Salsa and Status smartphones that sport deep Facebook integration.

This effort is something completely different.

Think of it as Zuckerberg’s latest take on mobile, albeit on a grand scale.

Apparently, Facebook has expanded the Buffy team, “creating a team of seasoned hardware engineers who have built the devices before” and tasking them with “exploring other smartphone”.

Facebook is going to great lengths to keep the phone project a secret, specifically not posting job listings on the company’s job Web site, but instead going door-to-door to find the right talent for the project.

Specifically, Facebook is understood to have already poached several Apple engineers.

The company has already hired more than half a dozen former Apple software and hardware engineers who worked on the iPhone, and one who worked on the iPad, the employees and those briefed on the plans said.

Furthermore, sources claim Zuck personally took it upon himself to convince these experienced folks to come work on his new pet project.

One engineer who formerly worked at Apple and worked on the iPhone said he met with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, who then peppered him with questions about the inner workings of smartphones. It did not sound like idle intellectual curiosity, the engineer said;

Mr. Zuckerberg asked about intricate details, including the types of chips used, he said. Another former Apple hardware engineer was recruited by a Facebook executive and was told about the company’s hardware explorations.

The idea has legs, if you ask me.

Facebook is the most popular social network there is.

Fresh from their initial-public offering and that $1 billion Instagram acquisition, Facebook three days ago released a sleek photo sharing app called Facebook Camera, seen in a clip below.

We also heard whispers that Zuckerberg is eyeing several major video sharing sites, perhaps looking for an Instagram-like deal for video.

Another clue: the company recently announced App Center, a cross-platform app store coded entirely in HTML5 and coming soon to Android, iOS and the web.

Here’s what it might look like.

They also released a brand new Pages Manager app, updated the Messenger for iPhone app with read receipts and location support and are working on Messenger for iPad with Skype video calling.

Finally, shareholders certainly want Facebook to produce revenue streams other than personalized advertising shown to people who access the web interface on their desktop.

With mobile devices being all the rage these days and the Facebook brand getting stronger with each passing day, selling phones should do the trick, the company hopes.

Of course, Apple hasn’t been too happy with where things were heading with Facebook.

“I’ve always thought the two companies could do more together”, CEO Tim Cook said at a recent shareholder meeting.

Summing up, it does feel like Facebook is finally coming to a realization that its business model is at risk unless their platform takes over mobile space.

Plus, nearly one billion people can’t be wrong.

So, if you’re planning to sell this people on your own smartphone, that’s a powerful user base to boot from.

Well over half of them access the site on mobile devices.

According to comScore, users spend 7.5 hours on mobile Facebook versus 6.5 hours spent in Facebook’s web interface on desktop.

And if you need even more proof that Facebook is poised to launch a phone, look no further than their SEC form that lists as a potential threat “growth in use of Facebook through our mobile products, where we do not currently display ads, as a substitute for use on personal computers may negatively affect our revenue and financial results”.

With Google now officially a handset maker, Facebook cannot really afford to stand still.

Is a Facebook phone a plausible idea, what do you think?