Computer hardware prices are going down. This has been an invariable rule of the personal computer industry since its birth a dozen years ago, and the trend is continuing with a vengeance this year.

Consider, for example, IBM's recent decision to increase the sales quotas for dealers selling its PS/2 PCs. The result of that move has to be to increase the pressure on dealers to move PS/2 machines. That means, in turn, that prices will come down -- with a corresponding downward pressure on the prices of all PC and AT clones.

Even John Sculley of Apple Computer is talking about bringing out a (slightly) cheaper version of the Macintosh II this year, although Mac buyers will still find themselves paying a premium over prevailing prices in the IBM world.

In the software trade, however, the trend seems to be headed the other way. The high-price companies like Lotus, Ashton-Tate and Microsoft have managed to set prices of $400 or more for major programs and get away with it (Although prices drop sharply for big buyers who purchase hundreds of copies of the program at a time.).

Meanwhile, some former low-price software houses are moving into the higher range. Borland, for example, has set a tentative price of $180 for its forthcoming version of the desk accessory program SideKick. That's double the price of the current version.

We consumers don't have much right to complain about this unpleasant trend in software, though, because it's our fault. As long as people are willing to pay full freight for Lotus 1-2-3 (instead of opting for one of the 1-2-3 clones available at one-third the price), Lotus is going to keep its prices high. It's curious, in a way. While corporate and individual buyers are now willing to buy something other than IBM when it comes to hardware, they are still bound to the high-priced, brand-name offerings in the software trade.

In fact, there are many perfectly legitimate bargains in software country. This column has mentioned the wonderful hard-disk manager program, Maxshell (from Maxamedia). At $39, it's less than half the price of The Norton Commander and similar programs that perform no better.

Right now I'm excited about an excellent new spreadsheet program that has emerged as a real bargain. It is from Borland and is called "Quattro."

At its list price of $200, Quattro is a good deal; at prices near $125, which I've seen in several mail-order ads, this product is a steal.

The designers of Quattro faced a familiar problem for anyone trying to compete with Lotus: The competing program has to be the same as 1-2-3 (so that spreadsheets and macros already perfected on 1-2-3 can be transferred instantly to the new program) and yet somehow be better at the same time (to give buyers a reason for choosing something other than Lotus). Quattro walks this tightrope better than any program I've seen.

If you want, you can set up Quattro so that it runs almost exactly the same as 1-2-3, with the same menus and commands. Significantly, the program successfully ran every 1-2-3 macro I tested (a "macro" is a code that transforms a long series of commands into a single keystroke). It appears that some 1-2-3 "add-in" programs -- software designed to enhance the capabilities of 1-2-3 -- will not run on Quattro.

But if you're not committed to any "add-in," you can make the switch from 1-2-3 to Quattro just about painlessly.

But then Quattro goes on to outperform Lotus 1-2-3 in many areas. The new program is a shining star on graphics: It produces beautiful charts in a variety of styles that 1-2-3 can't duplicate, even with graphics add-in programs. If the graphs and charts have drawn you to 1-2-3, you'll be a lot happier with Quattro.

Further, Quattro is an easier program to use. Its on-line help screens are pretty good -- not great, but better than what Lotus provides.

Quattro lets you create new macros automatically by remembering your keystrokes as you type in the desired commands; this is a lot easier than programming a macro in 1-2-3. The vaunted "soft interface" -- that is, a command structure that can be customized as you like -- lets you write your own menu if the standard set of 1-2-3 commands proves too arcane for you to remember.

It's important to realize that Quattro is not one of the "new-generation" spreadsheets like Excel or Surpass, which go beyond the capabilities of 1-2-3. Those programs are worth looking at if you're interested in the state-of-the-art of spreadsheet technology (and if you're willing to pay $400 or so for your spreadsheet program). Quattro is weak on linking separate spreadsheets, and it doesn't allow you to use a mouse, as the newer spreadsheets do.

But in the world of Lotus 1-2-3 clones, Quattro stands out for fine performance at a fine price.

And thus it stands as at least one exception to the general rule that software prices are heading up.