When Michael Rahman says "there's no need to sit in an office to do business anymore," he ain't just whistling Dixie. Rahman, who as president of AmericAir International Inc. consults worldwide for companies in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) industry, is as likely to be knocking out reports on his Hyperion portable computer in a lounge at Tokyo's airport as working out of his home office in Winston-Salem, N.C. In fact the multilingual Rahman gives new meaning to the term "on the road." Since 1979, he has made 11 world tours and visited more than 50 countries for his clients.

As might be expected, Rahman has a lot to keep track of, not the least of which is his crucial list of global contacts. "I know a lot of people worldwide," he says. "But to find them at the opportune moment [isn't always easy]."

To create and maintain an up-to-date file on these individuals, he could have selected from dozens of software packages that are designed to organize and manage information. Instead, he invested in Next Step (Execuware, a division of Aeronca Inc., Charlotte, N.C.; $345), one of a handful of packages known as program or application generators that allow users to design their own software -- even if, like Rahman, they have no programming knowledge whatsoever.

Program generators have long been a part of the mainframe and minicomputer scenes, where, early on, the huge costs of developing custom software fueled a demand for an easier way to write the application packages that users needed to get a job done. Then about two years ago, someone had the idea of developing program generators for microcomputers.

No longer, went the rationale, would people need to rely on whatever products software developers offered. Nor would they have to learn a new set of instructions for each package they purchased. Instead, for one price, they could simply create the programs they wanted.

As good as the idea sounds, the concept nearly fizzled. "Program generators have gotten a bad rap in the industry," admits John McCloskey, general manager of Execuware. Much of the unsavory reputation of this type of software can be traced back to the inauspicious introduction of the first generator -- known as The Last One (distributed by BSI, Blue Sky Software, Cherry Hill, N.J.; $495). The package, its developers promised in splashy full-page ads, would be the only program a user would ever need.

"They claimed to do everything but change the baby," says Jules Gilder, former editor of Microcomputer Software Letter (Newsletter Management Corp., Boca Raton, Fla.). When the product finally appeared, nearly one year after its initial announcement, most novices found writing applications time-consuming and difficult. And even seasoned programmers had trouble altering their programs, since The Last One generated code -- the line-by-line instructions that tell the computer what to do -- -that was difficult to understand. "It just disappointed everyone," says Gilder.

Today, there are only about a dozen program generators on the market -- compared to around 80 word processing packages for the IBM Personal Computer, for instance. They cost from less than $70 to nearly $700 and vary considerably in both ease-of-use and sophistication. Some allow users to produce everything from graphics to spreadsheets to word-processing packages. But most, like Next Step, are limited to database applications. Most work in much the same way. Users answer a series of English-language questions or select items from a menu. When they have finished responding, the generator produces a program that is tailored to their requirements. The programming code can also be displayed easily, so more experienced users can further refine their software. (While in principle the code could be in any programming language, most of the microcomputer program generators use Basic.)

For those who have programming experience -- or access to someone who does -- the packages have obvious appeal (as long as they generate perfect code). "Instead of having to write 5,000 lines of code, you have to write only the 500 that are specific to your application. That's a hell of a time saver," says Al Tommervik, publisher of Softalk magazine.

Besides finding that it saved him time, Lee Hoffman, president of PhilanthroTec Inc., a seven-person, Laguna Hills, Calif., company that specializes in software for analyzing estate planning, literally formed a part of his business around a program generator. When Hoffman got Next Step, he was looking for software that would be easy for his clients to use and would calculate, from a series of complex government tables, the value of a tax deduction when a donor places an asset into a charitable trust. He had already developed for his customers, including charities, attorneys, and accountants, a sophisticated SuperCalc model that allowed them to enter a deduction's value, combine it with other variables, and figure out for their clients the optimal way to establish a trust.

After designing the format he needed, Hoffman, who knew no Basic, handed his work to a staff programmer to figure out the necessary, additional mathematical formulas. The beauty of the program, says Hoffman, is that "I can use my tax knowledge and my knowledge of the charitable area and how I want my end user to input the information to build a model, and have it completely done, then give it to my programmer. I have totally debugged code. And he just goes in and writes 30 or 40 lines, and its done."

The finished program, says Hoffman, replaces a 640-page Internal Revenue Service manual. "It would take you days to do [the deduction] by hand," he notes. "This program does it in just one minute." Hoffman's only regret is not getting his hands on the program generator earlier. "I had hired a guy at $800 a day to design a very inferior program, which we have since scrapped," he explains.

Whether or not those with no programming knowledge -- and no programmers within hailing distance -- can fare as well depends on the package. Rahman, hardly a sophisticated micro user, had no trouble designing, in only an hour and a half with Next Step, a custom file that lets him find information by company, person's name, product, accounts, or what he calls his "action week," a number that he assigns to each week in the year. And, after unsuccessfully searching for software to keep track of his expenses, he also developed his own expense-reporting program.

Rahman, in fact, is convinced that program generators are the software equivalent of traveling first class. "I just answer it like I'm a bit of a dummy," he says. "At the end, I sit back for 10 minutes, and the program's written. It seems to me," he adds, "that the whole software business is going to change from people buying programs to buying generators. Why should people pay $300 for a program, when they can [buy one], then generate what they want -- absolutely customized."

Although not everyone is as enthusiastic, even critics concede that program generators have their good points. For instance, Rahman could have created his applications with a file management program, such as the highly regarded PFS:File (Software Publishing Corp., Mountain View, Calif.; IBM PC, $140; Apple IIe, $125). To do calculations, though, he also would have to buy the companion, PFS:Report ($125). But the results wouldn't have been as tailored to his needs. His menu page, for example, is headed, "AmericAir International Inc." An off-the-shelf program would have only its own name as a head.

And program generators do have one indisputable advantage over canned software. You can make unlimited copies of the programs you generate and hand them out to whomever you please -- without cost. Since they write Basic code -- and most micros come with a Basic program -- you simply make a copy of the disk, slip it in the drive, and you're set.

"You can litemlly be a pirate and not break the law," says Lee Hoffman, who sells copies of his tax deduction program to his clients. Adds Jules Gilder, "If you want wide distribution for the final application, you're probably better off with a program generator, because it's going to be less expensive in the long run."

Michael Rahman, for example, plans to design a custom pricing program for an HVAC computer-controls equipment company that he represents, so the company's worldwide sales representatives can prepare estimates for contract bids easily. When he is finished, he will distribute copies to each of the company's agents. They will fill in the necessary data and ship copies of the completed disks back to the home office, where the information will be down loaded onto a hard disk. The agents will retain the program disk for the next bid.

"Most programs that you buy," Rahman says, "have all sorts of language saying you're going to be hung, drawn, and quartered if you make a copy of the diskette and give it to anybody. With Next Step, I can do what I like with these generated programs. They're my programs."

But program generators aren't panaceas. Despite the claims, most are not that easy for novices to master. Besides, says Tommervik, they only "allow you to write those programs that the author of the program generator could conceive that someone might want to write." And, warns Joseph Alsop, president of Data Language Corp., a software company in Billerica, Mass., programs have "strong upper boundaries. They can handle a problem of such a magnitude and no more."

Ross McCray, for instance, president of Specialty Nameplate Corp., a screen-printing company in Columbus, Ohio, found The Creator: MultiSolver (Software Technology for Computers Inc., Newton, Mass.; IBM PC, $300; Apple, $250) somewhat "disappointing." Without playing around with the generated code, he could write only very simple database applications, such as a mailing list. That, he says, "was not all that exciting." And creating an order-entry program proved impossible for him. "Either my knowledge was too limited or the program generator itself was too limited," he says. "I just couldn't figure out how to do it, and do it efficiently."

Although he knew some Basic -- and had, in fact, written a couple of little programs, including a simple job-costing routine -- he ended up hiring a programmer for $300 a program (a very low price) to write estimating and order-entry software, as well as a more sophisticated job-costing package, all geared specifically toward his business. "For the $300," he says, "it's just better to have him do it and make sure it's done right, than for me to sit down and write sections [of the program], then try to figure how to put them all together and get the other formulas in there that might be required."

And Lee Hoffman, while pleased with his tax-deduction program and equally satisfied with a database application he generated to keep tabs on clients and prospects, has outgrown the simple accounts-receivable package he developed.

Now that the business is expanding, he explains, he needs a "full-blown" accounting system. "I need multiple files," he says, "and the one thing Next Step doesn't do is allow you to go out and open multiple files." The off-the-shelf package he buys will give him interacting receivables and payables, post to a general ledger, and supply an audit trail. "It would take me too much time, without sophisticated accounting knowledge, to produce the type of systems that we need [with Next Step],"he says.

The Basic programs that generators create also take much longer to sort through information or search for data than most off-the-shelf packages. The programs can, however, be speeded up by compiling them, that is, putting them through a program that turns Basic into the much faster machine language -- the 0s and 1s that the computer understands.

Applications that are faster and more sophisticated can be created with so-called relational database programs. The best-selling dBase II (Ashton-Tate, Culver City, Calif.; $700), for example, is, in addition, a language that users must master to create their own programs. Or, you can use a dBase II applications generator such as Quickcode (Fox & Geller Inc., Elmwood Park, N.J.; $295) to produce dBase code just as other generators produce Basic code. But to distribute copies of a dBase II program, you must buy a dBase II Runtime disk from Ashton-Tate for each copy that you make (the disks are sold in packages of five for $500).

In the end, says Adam Green, chairman of SoftwareBanc Inc., a mail-order house and micro training company in Arlington, Mass., deciding how best to obtain software is much like figuring out how to get from one place to another. You might hail a cab, which, like hiring a programmer, would be expensive, but would do precisely what you want. Or you could hop a bus. Like off-the-shelf software, this method would do the job, but would require you to walk out of your way. Mastering programming is similar to learning how to drive a car. It would, he says, take some investment up front in time and money, but once accomplished, would give you full control. Program generators, says Green, are not unlike having your mother drive you from place to place. It is not as good as doing it yourself, but it is better than taking a bus and less expensive than a cab.

Should you decide to buy a program generator, quality is doubly important. "It's a unique situation," says Jules Gilder, "because people are really dealing with two programs, the one they're using and the one they're generating." Both, he says, should be easy to operate, produce perfect Basic code, be able to handle mathematical calculations, and allow users to redo parts of their completed program without having to reenter data.

Although program generators haven't as yet taken the software industry by storm, Scott Hillman, vice-president of product services for Inglewood, Calif.-based Softsel Computer Products Inc., the country's largest software distributor, thinks the market for these products will grow. "There's been one basic truth to the whole computer industry," he says. "No matter what you try to build into an application, inevitably the user is going to come up with a set of requirements that doesn't precisely match the application's capability. There are just too many ways of doing things out there."

Like software packages in general, the trend in newer programs is unmistakably toward those that do more with less effort. The Last One, for instance, now claims to be "a lot more user friendly and versatile than the original," according to Larry Downing, president of Northern Division, DJAI Systems Ltd., original developer of the product. And Gary Haffer, author of The Creator, released STC: MultiSolver, a program that will supercede The Creator. The package contains nine prewritten Basic applications, including accounting, word-processing, general ledger, graphics, and budgeting. Users just answer questions to alter the models to their requirements.

Meanwhile, the fact that generated program disks can be sold without cost or penalty has served to fan the entrepreneurial spark for many users. Lee Hoffman has thought of 20 programs he can create for the home and figures he can have them up and running on an IBM PC inside of a week. "We could pile them up in a Baggie," he says, "and sell them for a few bucks off-the-shelf."

And even Michael Rahman, who admits he is "not a computer freak," is thinking about improving some of his programs, compiling them, printing little booklets, and, he says, "maybe selling them for $49.95 in airline magazines." Most businesspeople's applications, says Rahman with unconscious irony, "are very similar."