Why is it that IBM's major new software product, TopView, reminds me of Wagner's "Parsifal"?

It's partly because TopView, which quite possibly will turn out to be the most important new personal computer development of 1985, should be in the stores right around Easter time. Easter is the season, of course, when opera companies traditionally perform Richard Wagner's strange but majestic opera about Parsifal, a medieval Knight of the Grail.

In this insanely wonderful musical saga, which has more twists and loops than a beginner's first program in BASIC, Parsifal and his colleagues devote their lives to a mystic quest for the Holy Grail.

In our time, that search for the Holy Grail has become a metaphor for any effort to reach a grand, but elusive, goal. In the personal computer context, the most important such goal facing the industry is the quest for compatibility, for some standard that will permit all hardware and software to be interchangeable among all computers or systems.

Not long ago, when the IBM-PC was new and its MS-DOS operating system was in its infancy, a single standard of compatibility seemed possible. There were a few holdouts -- a few rotten Apples, you might say -- but many thought the industrywide standard was around the corner.

The experts aren't so sure today. IBM is producing new versions of its computer (such as the AT) that aren't even compatible with other IBM micros, much less machines from other manufacturers. And with each new version of MS-DOS, the IBM implementation (known as PC-DOS) varies a little more from the operating system available for other machines.

Some industry watchers see in these developments sinister proof that IBM plans to build a wall of incompatibility around its personal computer products and thus cut off at the knees all those companies now making IBM clones.

I don't see it that way. I think IBM is smart enough to realize that it, too, has a strong interest in a single personal computer standard. That may be the real purpose behind TopView.

TopView is IBM's brand-new "operating environment" for its PC, XT, and AT personal computers (the new program is not available for the PCjr).

If you'll excuse a little jargon, it is a "window-based multitasking program." That is, TopView divides the screen into windows and lets you run several different programs at the same time, one in each window.

I had a chance to test drive TopView the other day and found it a useful tool. You can, for example, call a bulletin board on your modem program and then, while it is dialing and making the connection, shift to another window and continue entering records into a database file.

TopView also permits easy movement of data from one window to the next. That is, it lets you create your own integrated program -- a la Symphony and Framework -- using the spreadsheet, database and writing programs you're using right now. IBM says most major applications programs will run under TopView.

At $149, TopView is priced well below some other "multitasking" programs and it offers features the competitors don't have. IBM plans its biggest software advertising campaign ever, and TopView seems a strong bet to be a big hit.

But the real importance of TopView, I submit, is that it offers a new standard -- a new method for achieving compatibility among competing computer systems.

The new test for "compatibility," I think, no longer will be whether a computer can run all IBM-PC or IBM-AT software (not even other IBM machines can do that). It will be whether a machine or program can run with TopView.

As computer expert Rick Cook puts it, "TopView provides a . . . well-defined interface to hardware and software. By year's end, the standard is probably going to be 'TopView compatibility', not 'IBM-PC compatibility.' "

If that happens, TopView will indeed turn out to be the most significant development of the year -- perhaps of the decade.

And that would be something to sing about. Wagner, where are you when we need you?