Toll-not-free 900 numbers now fetch messages from the pope or quotes on used cars, either of which callers don't mind paying for. And some companies that used to offer 800 numbers to customers who needed technical help with their products are now adapting 900 numbers for that purpose.

But the jury's still out. Here is how two fence sitters view the quandary:

* Symantec, in Cupertino, Calif. This software publisher's possible switch to a 900 number is bogged down at the hallway-conversation stage. Among the concerns: alienating old customers accustomed to getting help for free, and not being able to figure out how to charge. For instance, should the customer pay a flat rate and the company pay for the duration of the call, or vice versa? Or should the caller pay all? And if the caller has a justified complaint, would the company pick up the tab? Strongest argument in favor of switching: it would cut down on frivolous calls. Making money isn't a motive. Plans are that should a switch occur, there would be only a minimal charge to the caller, with Symantec picking up the balance. And only true technical support would be billed. Customer service would still be provided free.

* Viewlogic Corp., in Marlborough, Mass. This CAD-CAM hardware original equipment manufacturer is considering a 900 line to handle customers who aren't directly its own. People who buy equipment from resellers often turn to Viewlogic for the quality of its technical assistance. In that case, it's argued, the line should support itself, but the arithmetic doesn't bear that out. About 75 calls come from others' customers every month, each averaging nine minutes. If the company charged a sizable $5 per minute, it would bill $40,500 a year, of which 65%, or $26,325, would actually be received -- not enough to staff even one technician. Another disincentive: there's no practical way of separating Viewlogic's own incoming customers from resellers' customers.

-- Michael P. Cronin