Over the years, we have gotten used to losing senior writer Robert Mamis to a variety of hardware -- airplanes, windsurfers, his 34-foot ocean racer, Fido -- but sometime last summer, like Alice through the looking glass, he pulled an even more unusual disappearing act and vanished into a nine-inch portable Corona computer screen.

"It was like watching an unending episode of 'Dallas," says Bob of his three-month stint evaluating integrated, business-oriented software (see "They Macro! They Mask! They Merge! Some of Them Even Do Windows. . . But Can They Help You Run Your Business?" page 64). "Every program was a little drama all its own.If I had it tough, though, think about the typical business software customer contemplating a major purchase for his own company. He can't really learn about a system by going into a retail store and talking to a clerk about it, and he can't take it home with him. So I did it for him."

Bob's long season with the soaps raises some tough questions for a highly competitive, service-oriented industry that markets itself like mad and sticks some steep sticker prices on its products. For instance, if, as recent evidence suggests, the full potential of these new integrated programs is being consistently underexploited by their end users, how service-oriented are we really talking here? And . . . well, we'll let Bob take over:

"When, only a few weeks after releasing a $695 software system, a company publishes a $22.95 textbook that professes to explain the whole thing -- as Lotus Development Corp. recently did on behalf of Symphony -- something is obviously awry. Aren't those tutorials, manuals, help screens, demonstration disks, and (in one case) audio cassettes doing the trick? Apparently not. The printed instructions accompanying the programs seem to be issued not so much by the well-considered page, but, like sides of beef, by the pound. Symphony's retail bundle, for instance, weighs in at a strapping 7 lbs. 3 oz. -- three times the mass of James Michener's Hawaii.

"In Detroit, no one picks up the telephone to answer a complaint if your new car won't start. With software, however, getting direct assistance from the folks who created the confusion is, understandably, a marketing tradition. Most publishers provide in-house specialists who will talk you through a stricky maneuver, much like a rookie pilot landing an airplane in the fog. Fair enough -- if the frustrated novice can dial up and be done with it. But what if you are in Boston at 9:00 A.M. and the company is in Pasadena, Calif., where dawn is barely breaking? Your only choice is to wait out the down-time. Or, worse, what if you are in Pasadena at 2:00 p.m. and the software publisher has just turned out the lights in Boston?

"Furthermore, cross-country phone calls are expensive. Only a few of the integrated system houses offer toll-free numbers; otherwise, the dimes spent are yours. Even that might be tolerable, except that getting through to a consoling voice often strains the bounds of patience. I know, because I had problems with all these software systems, and this is what happened when I called:

* Peachtree Software: The phone was quickly answered. I was put on hold for 30 seconds while being treated to lo-fi Big Band music from an Atlanta FM station (Benny Goodman's rendition of "Sing, Sing, Sing"? Not enough time to decide before technical support picked up). A southern female voice refused to converse, saying Peachtree responds only on call-back basis. Name and number taken at 10:20 a.m.; techie returned call at 10:50. Elapsed time: 32 minutes.

* BTI Systems: The line was busy 10 straight times. At last a recorded voice answered: "All our support representatives are currently busy." Held the dead line for 2 minutes.Finally a real voice answered, "All our support representatives are currently busy." Left name and number. Was called back in half an hour. Elapsed time: 40 minutes.

* Ashton-Tate: Got right through and probably could have chatted to the president if I had thought to ask. Instead, I made the mistake of requesting customer support. Was transferred to recording that advised me to have software serial number ready and described A-T's commitment to the customer. Message prattled on for good 80 seconds. No support was forthcoming, only Easy Listenin' FM. Was listenin' uneasily to "Try to Remember (the Kind of September)" when a voice interrupted. "Our support technicians are still busy." Kept holdin'. Twelve minutes later, still no surcease; lots of hearts and flowers, though. Hung up. Elapsed time: still tickin'.

* Context Management Systems: Picked the phone right up.No wonder there was such speed: The company no longer offers technical support. "Try the dealer you bought it from," I was told. Elapsed time: 8 seconds.

* Software Products International: The phone was answered promptly; I received customer support promptly. Elapsed time: 1 minute.

* Innovative Software: Ditto. The counselor even introduced himself like friendly waiter (Matt). Elapsed time: 1 minute.

* Mosaic: Same (Barry). Elapsed time: 1 minute.

* Lotus Development: The switchboard advised that it would be a three to four minute wait. I was switched to technical support and was put on canned Mozart. A symphony, of course. Pleasantly elapsed time: 3 minutes.

"Still," says Bob, "none of this is as demanding as IBM's new customer-service policy. They answer questions like everybody else -- except theirs can cost $40 a query."

At that price, even Alice's sense of curiosity could disappear.