The trouble with having so many choices among word-processing, spreadsheet and database programs is that you end up with a wide variety of incompatible software.

It's bad enough if you work alone and only have to contend with your own collection of text and data files created with different programs. But if you work in offices where competing brands of software are in use, the result can be chaos.

One way to deal with the problem is to add yet another program to the repertoire of choices. It is called Outside In, at $99, from Systems Compatibility Corp. of Chicago, and runs on PC-compatible computers.

The sole purpose of Outside In is to act as a translator, allowing you to insert text into your word-processing files directly from 33 different kinds of word-processing file formats, three Macintosh word-processing programs, 12 PC spreadsheet programs and eight PC database programs.

Computer word-processing files are complicated creations. Not only must they store the words in the document, they must also store the position of the page margins, tab stops, special character attributes like boldface, underlines and italics, type styles and sizes, and often much more. Not surprisingly, most word-processing publishers do all of that differently from their competitors, and as a result, their files are not compatible with each other.

Of course, spreadsheet and database files are totally different from text files, so unless they were designed by the manufacturer as part of an integrated system of programs, such as in Microsoft Works or Ashton-Tate's Framework, it is tough to bring such data into a text document.

When it transfers text from one word-processing program to another, Outside In preserves the tab settings and the character attributes of bold, underline and italic type. And for spreadsheet and database files, it transfers the data in a tabular structure, as it appears in a typical spreadsheet.

The program is memory-resident, requiring about 70 kilobytes of your computer's operating memory. You must load it into memory before beginning to use your word-processing software.

Once loaded, you call Outside In from within the word-processing document when you reach the spot that you would like to insert material.

Then, following a menu of choices across the bottom of your screen, you tell Outside In which directory to search for the spreadsheet file. It will display the file names for you. As you move the cursor highlight down the list of names, you will see the top of each file in an adjacent window on your screen.

Outside In automatically recognizes what program created the file and displays it just as it would look in the program. When the right one appears on the screen, tab over to that window and scroll side to side or up and down through the file to find the section you want. Then mark it with special keystrokes, and press the Insert key key to have the marked section copied into your word-processing document. The original remains undisturbed.

A particularly nice feature of Outside In is its ability to select non-contiguous sections of the spreadsheet for transfer. You could, for instance, just copy the labels along the left column of the spreadsheet and the summary data from a column farther to the right.

The material you move into your word-processing document will take on the margins and tab settings of that document, so you must be careful not to move in material that is too wide to fit. If you do, it wraps to the next line and the columnar line-ups are lost.

Spreadsheets recognized by Outside In include Enable, Framework, Lotus 1-2-3 and Symphony, Excel, Works, Mosaic Twin, Quattro, PFS:Professional Plan, SuperCalc5, SmartWare II and VP Planner 3D.

Database material is treated as if it were stored in a table, like a spreadsheet. If you have special entry or report forms for your data, they will not be recognized by Outside In. The non-contiguous selection process works the same as for spreadsheets.

Databases recognized are dBASE, Data Ease, dBXL, Enable, FoxBase, Framework, Works and SmartWare II.

When you choose text created by other word-rocessing programs, the rules are a little different. You must select contiguous text. If you want non-contiguous text, you must go back to the source file again as many times as necessary to retrieve the separate segments.

The list of word-processing programs supported is too long to give, but it is printed on the back of the package so you can make sure your needs are covered before you buy.

Richard O'Reilly is a Los Angeles Times staff writer. Readers' comments are welcomed, but the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.