Just about three years ago this week I turned this column into a love letter to a program -- a wonderfully useful program that launched a whole new category of software. The object of my affection was Borland International's now-famous "SideKick." It was the first program in what has become a large category: desk accessory software.

I loved SideKick because it incorporated two brilliant new ideas.

First, there was the program itself: a collection of "desk-top utilities" that permitted you to use your computer for a whole bunch of routine activities that previously were done with those ancient tools known as pencil and paper. SideKick offered a pocket calculator that popped up on the screen whenever you needed it, a calendar and appointment book, an instant notepad, a speedy directory that would find a phone number and dial it automatically, and other assorted goodies.

What made these utilities really useful was SideKick's second innovation: instant access. You hit a key and the SideKick calendar, calculator or whatever pops up in a window right over your work. Hit the Escape key, and the window disappears, putting you right back where you started. Because of this feature, known to the tekkies as "TSR" -- that is, "terminate and stay resident," meaning the program always remains in memory -- SideKick is faster to use than a traditional Rolodex or paper notepad.

SideKick is so useful that every computer user ought to have a copy (actually, every MS-DOS computer user; on the Macintosh, the program is too slow to be useful). And sure enough, the program has been a smash hit. Naturally, a product that good spawned lots of imitators. Intrigued by the basic concept of the electronic desk top, I have tried just about all the SideKick clones. None was ever quite good enough to lure me away from good ol' SideKick.

Until now.

There are two new Olympic-class desk-top utility programs on the market. If you're a Word Perfect fan, take a look at a program called "Word Perfect Library." It provides the basic SideKick desk accessories in a format instantly familiar to those who know Word Perfect. The utility program I prefer, however, is a new offering from Lotus (makers of 1-2-3 and Symphony). It's called "Metro," it costs $85 retail -- somewhat less at a discount store or via mail order -- and it's the best SideKick clone ever.

You load Metro into memory once -- preferably right when you boot up the computer. Then whenever you hit the Shift and Alt keys together, the Metro menu pops into view. It offers all the SideKick utilities: calculator, notepad, appointment calendar, phone directory and auto dialer, and a table of ASCII codes (useful for programmers, harmless for others.) But Metro goes far beyond that. It has a "List Manager" for to-do lists, outlines, etc.

It has a "Watch" function that will ring alarms and keep track of the time you spend on various jobs -- terrific for lawyers and other bill-by-the-minute types. It has a "Clipboard" function, like the one built into every Macintosh, that transfers text or numbers swiftly from one program to another. There's a great file manager, "Filer," that lets you navigate around a hard disk and perform all sorts of DOS tasks without exiting the program you've been working on. "Filer" is so fast and easy that it's better for many users than those $100 "DOS Shell" programs.

Finally, Metro has a sophisticated "Macro" capability, so powerful it is really a small programming language. "Macro" is computerese for assigning a whole series of keystrokes to a single key. The macro capabilities of Lotus 1-2-3 helped make that spreadsheet program the software of choice in millions of offices. Now, using Metro, anybody who knows how to use macros in 1-2-3 can create shortcuts for any task in any program.

In daily use, Metro is just about as fast and easy to use as SideKick. I picked up the basic command routine (featuring the top-of-the-screen command menu familiar to all 1-2-3 users) in a matter of minutes, and within a day the whole program felt comfortable.

In some areas, Lotus made design choices that produce a program less convenient than SideKick. To get this month's calendar on Sidekick, you hit one key; to get to today's appointments, you hit one more key. Metro's appointment calendar, in contrast, pops up initially showing today's appointments; it takes three more strokes to see the calendar, and three more to get back to daily or weekly appointments. You might as well go low tech and buy a paper calendar.

Further, SideKick's built-in Help screens are much better than Metro's. For some reason, Metro has two separate writing accessories -- one for taking quick notes and a separate "editor," or simple word processor. SideKick puts these two functions in one, which seems much easier to us. Metro's editor uses the F4 key to delete words or phrases; SideKick uses the more obvious choice, the delete key.

In summary, Metro is a fine program that offers many more features than SideKick at a comparable price. But on the tasks it can perform, SideKick is generally easier to use. It's a close call, but for the time being, at least, my choice among desk-top utilities is Lotus Metro. I'll keep using it at least until Borland produces the updated version of SideKick (SideKick Plus) that it has been promising for months no