(CNN) -- Here's a brief history lesson for you.
Three years ago, Google was where you turned to look up a recipe. To check your e-mail. To chat with your friends when you were supposed to be working.
But in the tech equivalent of a blink of the eye, things today are much different. Throughout the last year, Google has released a string of incredible hardware products, not just a bunch of virtual services you use through another company's device.
Google really kicked it into gear in July 2012 with the Nexus 7, its first-ever tablet, that was priced at just $199. Reviewers went nuts. It wasn't just a great tablet because it was so cheap, it was simply a great tablet. Even the iPad mini, which came out a few months later and sold for $130 more, wasn't as good.
Then came another string of winners: The Nexus 4 smartphone, which you can buy unlocked and without a contract for just $299. The Chromebook Pixel, a beautiful laptop with a stunning high-resolution touchscreen. And more recently, the Chromecast, a dongle that plugs directly into your TV and lets you beam video from your Android device, iPhone or iPad.
There's also the Moto X, a new smartphone from Google-owned Motorola that's one of the most accessible and easy to use Android phones I've ever tested. And don't forget Google Glass, the promising, Internet-connected eyewear that should hit the market next year.
As Apple keeps its head down and works on iterative (but great) updates to its iPhone and iPad line, and as Microsoft struggles to find a way to make Windows 8 devices like its Surface tablet resonate with the public, Google is releasing some of the most interesting and innovative hardware we've seen recently.
As a high-level executive at a very large tech company recently told me, no company can hope to be successful these days unless it can offer an ecosystem of software, services, and great devices to run them all on. Yes, that's the Apple model, but it's a model that's been proven to be a hit with consumers in the new mobile computing era.
And Google, a company that most people still associate with Gmail and Web searches, has been crushing it in both respects. It's always done well with the data, apps, and services part of things, but stringing all that together with affordable, high-quality hardware is a new and exciting trend for the company.
In some ways, Google has done a better job at this than Apple. For example, unlike the Apple TV, which requires you to have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to beam video, the new Chromecast will work with any major laptop, smartphone, or tablet no matter who makes it. And it does it all for a very reasonable $35, or $64 less than Apple's product. There's massive potential here for Google to build TV-watching ecosystem built around the device.
Apple may make great hardware, but it's biggest challenge is still making reliable software and services. (Remember the Apple Maps debacle from last year?) Meanwhile, Google is already a pro at such services, and it's packaging them along with great devices that are affordable and appeal to average users, not just the tech elite.
To endure in the cutthroat tech world, a company can't just rely on doing one thing well. It has to push forward, experiment, and get messy. In the last year, Google has proved it can do all that -- and make some quality gadgets at the same time.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Kovach.
Copyright © 2011 Business Insider.