Facebook is luring engineers away from Apple and setting them to work on a Facebook smartphone.

So says Nick Bilton, over at the New York Times, who quotes an unnamed Facebook employee as saying “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.” Bilton said that his sources tell him that Facebook as hired more than a half dozen former Apple employees to work on the new device.

This isn’t the first time we have heard rumors regarding the possibility of a Facebook phone. AllThingsD reported on a Facebook phone codenamed ‘Buffy’ late last year. At that time, they said their sources indicated that HTC (makers of the new HTC EVO 4G LTE) had been tasked with the job. If Bilton is correct and Facebook is hiring people to build the new phone in-house, does that indicate a change in direction? Or will the new hires simply be part of a design team to prepare a phone for HTC to manufacture?

Bilton said he learned from people “briefed on Facebook’s plans” that Facebook’s goal is to launch the new phone by next year. So it will be a while before we get a good look at this thing, if it does indeed materialize.