Facebook is expanding its efforts to create a smartphone and aims to release one by next year, The New York Times reports. According to the Times, Facebook employees, engineers, and others familiar with the matter say that the company has added to the group working on the project, codenamed "Buffy," and that it has 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 report quotes one Facebook employee who says that Mark Zuckerberg "is worried that if he doesn't create a mobile phone in the near future that Facebook will simply become an app on other mobile platforms."

Last month, DigiTimes claimed that Facebook and HTC are partnering to create a new Android smartphone with "a platform exclusive to Facebook," and the Times says that the project is still in the works. The Times says that this is Facebook's third attempt to create a smartphone, after it discovered that it could not figure out hardware on its own — it's since reportedly hired engineers to work with a phone manufacturer to "design the shape, style, and inner workings of a Facebook phone."

While Facebook may not have its own operating system, its suite of apps and services — including Instagram and the new Facebook Camera app — could be interesting if fully integrated with a mobile platform. And as Amazon has shown, that's an open possibility when building on Android. There's also Facebook's rumored interest in purchasing Opera to create its own browser, which could mesh nicely with an effort to create a new mobile platform. Nothing is confirmed at this point, and we'll have to wait and see if the social networking giant's handset hopes come to fruition — but the rumors of a Facebook phone are certainly piling on.