Among other murmurings of a Facebook smartphone, The New York Times reports the company is hoping to release the handset by next year.

by Michelle Meyers

Interesting how the very week Google became a hardware makerwith the closing of its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, there’s talk of another Internet giant doing the same.

The New York Time’s Nick Bilton reports today, citing unnamed sources, that Facebook is hoping to release its own smartphone by next year.

Bilton’s sources include Facebook employees and several engineers who have been sought out by recruiters there, as well as people briefed on Facebook’s plans, he says. Those briefed on the plans told Bilton that the company has already hired more than six “former Apple software and hardware engineers who worked on the iPhone, and one who worked on the iPad.”

Of course, this builds on earlier reported attempts at a Facebook phone. In November, AllThingsD reported that Facebook had tapped HTC to build a smartphone that integrates the social network at its core in an effort code-named “Buffy.” DigiTimes later reiterated that report saying HTC was working in cooperation with Facebook on a phone that could be launched as early has the third quarter of 2012.

And TechCrunch first starting talking about efforts for a Facebook phone in fall 2010.

It should be noted as well that in February 2011 at Mobile World Congress, HTC unveiled two new smartphones that feature dedicated Facebook buttons: the HTC ChaCha, which eventually became the HTC Status (review here), and the HTC Salsa.

From Bilton’s report:

Now, the company has been going deeper into the process, by expanding the group working on “Buffy,” and exploring other smartphone projects too, creating a team of seasoned hardware engineers who have built the devices before.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.

Facebook, for it’s part, didn’t confirm or deny Bilton’s assertion that a smartphone project is under way, but rather referred him to a statement it had earlier given All Things D. “We’re working across the entire mobile industry; with operators, hardware manufacturers, OS providers, and application developers.”

A Facebook representative also declined CNET’s request for comment on the story, adding, “We don’t comment in rumors and speculation.”

Interestingly, Bilton’s story comes on the heels of a Business Insider report today that lays more groundwork for a successful Facebook smartphone OS. It notes that just this week, Facebook rolled out Facebook Camera, not to mention its pending acquisition of Instagram. And it’s also all set with a Facebook Messages app, a Facebook app store, and its reportedly interested in buying the Opera.

Plus, we know the newly public company has long been concerned about how the shift of its users to mobile devices is hurting its long-term revenue. Here’s a way to take advantage of that shift.

Bilton points out rather than go against Apple in the smartphone marketplace, it could be Facebook vs. Android-maker Google, with both going after buyers of lower-priced smartphones.



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