Suppose you could buy a personal computer over the phone with Lotus 1-2-3 and other programs built-in.

In the leisure of your home or office, you get to test drive 1-2-3 and the other programs. After a few uses, the programs are automatically wiped off your hard disk. Unless you pay for them.

If you want to purchase them, you phone again and pay, say, by credit card. In return, you get a code number. You punch the code number into your computer and the program or programs are permanently installed. In the mail, you soon receive manuals.

You get not just to buy, but to try out, hardware and software without ever stepping into a computer store. You pay only for what you keep.

Farfetched?

Hardly. The idea has been blasted all over the front of Computer Reseller News, a trade publication for software and hardware sellers. Such a change in the method of distributing heavyweight programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 could have a radical effect on computer stores in general and software stores in particular.

According to the trade publication, such a test-drive program is in the works between Lotus Development Corp., the purveyors of 1-2-3, and Dell Computer Corp., the $389 million Austin, Texas seller of hardware and software by phone.

The two sides aren't talking publicly. But a Dell spokesman acknowledges that such a project is "in the discussion stages."

If it should come to pass, dealers who rely on sales to individuals will find themselves bypassed once again, in an industry increasingly bent on not catering to the needs of single customers. And those customers feel less and less need to have their hands held by a local store.

But it's risky. For one thing, a company such as Lotus risks alienating the dealers that have helped make it a software giant in the first place. Second, there is the question of how to include such resellers in the process. Lotus could handle all the incoming phone calls and dole out the leads on a pro rata basis to its existing resellers. Or, a company such as Dell, which sells both hardware and software, could handle calls from test drives on its machines.

And then there is the biggest risk: Actually letting customers do extensive testing of programs before they buy them could reduce sales.