It was a stroke of marketing brilliance. On the first day, a vendor proclaimed its product a "solution", and forevermore did all the other vendors follow suit.
After all, what were their computers, applications, development environments and so on, if not the be-all and end-all for users? Whatever the vendor made, it would solve a user's problem - or all of a user's problems, or problems a user didn't even know it had yet, or meet business needs before they became problems.
Before long, of course, salespeople and marketers ran amok with the term. "Solution" became flippant marketese, belying the complexity of the technology underneath it and confounding purchaser and user over what exactly the products did and didn't do.
Not that it bothered the product pushers. Even if they didn't truly expect their "solution" to solve all user problems, they did assume that someone else would figure out exactly how the product worked or what it was supposed to do. In marketing, such wishful thinking is often the point.
You'd think we'd be insulted by supposedly technosavvy vendors belittling our intelligence by calling everything they make a solution instead of what it really is. Instead, I see many of us using the term ourselves, almost in self-defense.
It's easier to tell management we want an end-to-end electronic-commerce solution than to explain how we need software that will let orders from a company's Web site go into our accounting and inventory systems, and how that works.
It's easier, but it isn't smarter.
We miss an opportunity to explain precisely what needs to be done, and thereby miss the opportunity to educate and build alliances with colleagues throughout the business.
By flinging around the word "solution," we forget that what the vendor is selling isn't really a solution anyway - only a tool. Get stuck on solution, and you risk getting stuck with a system that doesn't meet your company's needs, or requires all sorts of additional stuff to do so. If you doubt that, wait until you have to call for customer service or support. All of a sudden, that system doesn't look very end-to-end, much less like a solution.
So call it a product or a system or explain what it is in whatever depth your audience can handle. After all, as they say, anything that isn't part of the solution is part of the problem. Best that it not be you.