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Microsoft needs to prove it's serious about Cortana — before it's too late

Invoke Speaker
Invoke Speaker (Image credit: Windows Central)

Once upon a time, Cortana was going to revolutionize productivity and organization for every user of the Microsoft ecosystem. On PCs and Windows phones, "she" would help you set up reminders, keep track of your appointments, and dynamically let you know if you need a raincoat for that morning commute. On Xbox, Cortana would be your gateway to voice-activated media controls and keep track of your friends' activities on Xbox Live. On IoT, Cortana was supposed to arrive on a new generation of connected devices. So uh, how did this all go down? Not as planned.

Microsoft says it's still committed to Cortana, attempting to end speculative commentary that portents the voice assistant's doom. But actions speak louder than words, and at least on the face of it, Microsoft has been doing a whole load of nothing to showcase and develop Cortana as a platform.

Hey Cortana, install Alexa

While most of the features described above arrived, they either did so slowly, in a near-useless state, or, in some cases, not at all. That's particularly so if you were in the wrong market. Cortana is in a weird, scary place right now, and it doesn't feel like Microsoft is giving the web-based Bing assistant anywhere near the level of resources she needs.

Amazon's Alexa, with an army of cheap and powerful connected speakers, has thoroughly come to dominate the whole idea of what a voice-activated assistant should be. But even Alexa has her disadvantages, in that she's more or less limited to that speaker in the corner of your house.

Cortana should have been well placed to take a dominating role in this new category.

Luckily for Cortana, Alexa's apps on Android and iOS aren't that great, yet. So, on a wide array of Microsoft-backed devices and hundreds of millions of PCs, Cortana should have been well placed to really take a dominating role in this exciting and new category. But it hasn't panned out that way.

Amazon's Alexa is now encroaching on Windows PCs. Announced at CES, Amazon Alexa will now come bundled with various PCs from high-profile vendors, such as ASUS and HP, which can only be seen as a snub of Microsoft's own voice-assistive efforts. Microsoft also previously announced that Alexa skills would be baked directly into Cortana, a partnership spawned from a position of weakness, rather than strength. If Cortana was powerful enough, intuitive enough, and had the same level of developer support as Alexa, this "partnership" probably wouldn't be happening.

The whole idea of saying "Hey Cortana, open Alexa," before accessing Amazon's own services is ridiculous, particularly when Alexa will be getting direct-access apps on Windows PCs. Anything Cortana does, Alexa can do better, and when she arrives on Microsoft's own platform, you have to presume that Cortana's days are well and truly numbered.

Cortana isn't a global product

Many of the complaints I have about Cortana extend directly to her insular nature. If you're based in the U.S., your experience with Cortana will wildly differ from my own, being in the UK, where half of Cortana's services and capabilities aren't available. Of course, I'm lucky to even have Cortana, considering she isn't available in the vast majority of territories and markets around the world. For a company as huge as Microsoft, this is just insane.

The trickle of IoT devices that support Cortana, such as the gorgeous GLAS thermostat, and Harman Kardon's surprisingly capable Invoke speaker are far from the army of devices Microsoft promised years ago for Cortana's IoT future. And these devices are available only in the U.S., as usual.

The GLAS thermostat is a stunning example of what is possible with Cortana.

The GLAS thermostat is a stunning example of what is possible with Cortana.

If you're a hardware manufacturer or developer looking to build services that tie into a home automation platform, do you choose Cortana, which has no dedicated devices, or Amazon Echo, which just rolled out to 80 countries? That's an easy answer.

Where is the global flagship Cortana device?

Save for a small handful of PCs with far-field microphone tech, yelling into your laptop's microphone is an utterly frustrating experience, and it pales in comparison to a dedicated microphone array, as seen with Amazon's Echo speakers or even Microsoft's own, now dead, Kinect sensor. Where is the global flagship Cortana device?

Alexa, and other products, such as Google Home, have their own growing pains in non-US countries for sure, but at least Alexa already has far more capabilities in her main territories and can be used adequately in dozens of other countries providing you speak one of her languages. Microsoft's excuse for the lack of Cortana support in other countries has often been to blame localization issues, but as a Brit, there is literally no downside to using Cortana set to a U.S. language. Cortana's features just work when you switch her language, but Microsoft asks you to put up with the annoying inconveniences that can arise from having your device location separated from your OS location for the privilege.

Get real or get out

Cortana used to have music recognition, but Microsoft killed it off too.

Cortana used to have music recognition, but Microsoft killed it off too.

Cortana is starting to look like it could be the next big Microsoft consumer product to be thrown on the scrap heap, following Groove Music, Windows 10 Mobile, and various other legacy products.. Cortana is a little different, though, in the sense that she is merely a portal to Microsoft's Bing search engine, which has enjoyed market share growth.

Why keep a dead feature baked into Windows itself, though? Cortana hasn't received a meaningful update in what feels like years at this point. The Cortana button in my taskbar feels like a useless, vestigial limb. Cortana on Xbox is miserably inadequate. Cortana is clunky, slow, and with Kinect sales now killed off, literally unusable for new Xbox owners. The whole fiasco is just embarrassing.

In a recent editorial, our Executive Editor Daniel Rubino outlined his view that Microsoft is working towards a grander, more focused vision, where products are more finely curated before being pushed out to consumers.

The idea of relying on Microsoft services for personal computing is becoming less tenable.

Groove, Microsoft Band, and Windows Phone are all products that, in Rubino's view, represented the old Microsoft, whose notorious silo-style workspace led to a litany of half-baked products that were either broken or simply too late to market. Which side of the fence does Cortana lie on? At this point, it's hard to tell.

What is the deal here, Microsoft? Is Cortana next on the chopping block? Or do you still have plans to improve her? You need to answer that question sooner than later because it looks like the era of the smart assistant is about to become yet another major computing market you guys missed out on.

There's a wider argument to tap into here, but Cortana represents a single facet of a pervasive problem where, as a core user, it's starting to feel like the very idea of relying on Microsoft services and systems for personal computing is becoming less and less tenable. Cortana could become another reason for Microsoft users to jump to another ecosystem and never look back.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • The speaker sounds amazing!! But yeah I just feel like MS is late with everything and only putting in half the effort. Why is there a thermostat (and nothing else) why have a smart speaker and not have stuff to connect and control? Cortana isn't even talked about anymore when speaking of voice assistant ai anymore largely due to mobile. There's tons of money to be made in the smart home space and I'd like to say "Hey Cortana" instead of "Echo" but investing in these things that don't have really any sign of a decent ecosystem is crazy. It saddens me honestly because I'm a fan and I want them to win on this front or at least to be a major player but the act like that's what they really want.
  • I can't even use Cortana on my Xbox one because I get a message saying it is not available in Canada. I bought some Google speakers for the home, they are great. I suppose that Microsoft lost me as a potential customer.
  • "Once upon a time, Cortana was going to revolutionize productivity and organization for every user of the Microsoft ecosystem"
    Umm yeah.  That can be said about just about everything cool Microsoft starts and fails to continue.    
  • An unfortunate, but seemingly true statement. It would be nice if, Microsoft for once, put forth real effort behind their consumer products. I understand that products have to make money but, it's like MS will only try, if they see immediate approval and acceptance of their products. I also realize that a business has to make money. However, when a company like Microsoft co. Especially up with great ideas, fails to implement them or late to the game, they have to expect that they will have to put more effort, time and money ey I to it for it to take hold. Otherwise, stop tip toeing into the market and just do the damn thing. They are more than capable, but willing to do what is necessary to make things happen. Doing things in the background to hopefully create a foundation for a product is no longer a viable option. I'm not saying that they should be careless with how they do things, but a more aggressive approach is needed, if they hope to have any type of consumer market to compete.
  • Agreed, MS is the king of the half baked disaster as we all know, but in the case of Cortana outside the US we can only DREAM of a half baked solution. Even in the UK it seems MS have yet to get the ingredients into the bowl, and in most places they still haven't made it out to the shops to buy the groceries. As far as companies are concerned, MS is your stoner neighbour who never cuts the lawn and doesn't get up till midday. They certainly don't do baking. How long before MS confirms they are fully committed to Windows, but it will only be available with enterprise licences going forward? Seems all MS can do these days is dig more trenches...
  • Hey, what's wrong with cutting the grass midday?
  • Yep. They have promised to do amazing things with phones, kinetic, Xbox....
  • If its not an Xbox or PC I stay away! Got a phone and surface 2 in a box somewhere around here.
  • The thing I don't understand is, Cortana if implemented correctly has the opportunity to keep windows relevant in the future, something that certainly isn't guaranteed today. An integrated personal digital assistant working flawlessly across all devices has the potential to be a real game changer keeping MS and its products front and centre in an ever changing digital landscape, but as usual 'ApathySoft' can't be bothered or simply don't have the vision to persist and make things work. It's disgraceful the path this once industry leading group are now on. Apathy reigns.
  • Exactly! First to invent and market only to give it up to other latercomers without a fight...
  • I agree but it all depends on the support Microsoft gets. They didn't create harmon's speaker they didn't create the thermostat. They cant do it all sadly. They need developers, engineers and companies to create devices with their OS/Software.
  • I don't think you get developers by having a reputation of not being able to stick to a product for at least two freaking years.
  • It was Microsoft's choice to not make their own speaker. A 3rd party isn't going to support an ecosystem more than a first party.
  • The Xbox One should be capable of being a Cortana controlled hub for things like smart home. Exactly like Apple has done with the Apple TV and HomeKit. But it's not. And Cortana is still basically useless compared to the other assistants outside of the U.S. Microsoft has plenty of resources, needs to start applying them.
  • This is not true but I'm not sure if it is only in the US. If you have a SmartThings hub (probably Wink too) I can tell Cortana to control my devices just the same as if I was speaking into my Invoke or PC, the only place I have mixed results in on my Elite x3. I think the BIGGEST confusion about Cortana and smart home devices is Microsoft has taken the OEM approach the same as they did with PCs. If others manufacture the components and allow Microsoft/Cortana to connect to their services, it technically works. But they are being flat out morons about it. I doubt you can walk into a Microsoft store and have someone tell how to use your xbox to turn on your lights or control your temperature cause Microsoft isn't vocal about how to do it but it IS possible. My Xbox is the reason I have 3 Invokes and not 4 because it does the exact same ****, people are just dense about it but I understand the country limitations.
  • A smartthings hub is an extra piece of equipment. The Apple TV has the necessary built into it. The Xbox One has Cortana built into it. There is zero reason why it can't be an Invoke.
  • Until Cortana's skills are built into picking up the concept of "things" (light bulbs, switches, thermostats) without an extra piece of equipment, then it will never be what Alexa or Siri is. And that is where I think there is confusion from Microsoft. They will say, use Wink or SmartThings whereas we will say "Why can't Cortana do it directly like Alexa?" I'm willing to bet manufacturers are unwilling to commit to integrating the APIs yet because they need to be convinced the millions of PCs or thousands of Invokes are worth the time. For me my Xbox is an Invoke, but both my Xbox and Invoke would be useless without the extra piece of equipment unlike an Echo or Google Mini.
  • I am hopeful after reading the article @ . Windows Central team, you should mention something about this for the MS fans likes us to be hopeful
  • After reading the geekwire article, I think Microsoft is focusing more on selling the platforms like Windows IoT core, Windows 10 modular OS (Intel and ARM) to OEMs to build new products. Cortana is integrated to all these platforms. In otherwords Microsoft is not planning to compete with Alexa and they see a future where we use both Cortana and Alexa. I am looking forward to that future
  • I read the article and playing the long game in this market is going to fail just like it did with phones. Amazon and to a lesser extent Google are  dominating the market and between them they have 95% of the sales. In the article the MS VP for Cortana says that today these smart assistants don't do a whole lot and they want to have a better experience. That is great, but I am sure that Amazon and Google want that too. The difference is that their boxes will be already in 55% of US homes by 2022 and they will continue adding capabilities. So MS might have a great product down the road but Amazon and Google will already own the market, not to mention getting their assistants into cars, TVs, appliances, your phone, your PC. 
  • Slighlty disagree with your point. The success or failure of Cortana will mostly depend up on the success of Windows IoT core or Windows Core OS. OEMs have the options to choose Windows IoT Core (just like Johnson Controls did for the Thermostat) OR Custom Android as the OS for controlling their devices (thermostat, refrigerator...etc.) and if they decided to go with Windows IoT, Cortana is built in and they can easily expose the functions through Cortana where as they need additional effort to integrate Alexa or Google. Microsoft's can convinvce the OEM that if they integrate with Cortana, they don't need to worry about the Alexa integration as Alexa can control the device through the Alexa - Cortana friendhip. I think Microsoft's recent partnership with Qualcomm and other hardware companies is going to be key here..
  • Have the speaker also have Alexa. The Harmam Kardon is 20times better with the sound much more
    superior to Alexa
  • But how is Cortana compared to Alexa, that's more important. If you want a great wireless music speaker that can play Spotify there are plenty of options out there.
  • It doesn't come close to Alexa.... You need to be a spotify premium user for it to work with spotify as well.   Speaker sounds great.  Works with my home automation (Wink), but is much slower than Alexa.
  • What if you want one that can stream music through Groove though? I miss the days when Microsoft was a real company.
  • Based on my own experiences using Cortana to control Spotify on PC since last week, it is more accurate than Alexa.  Quite a few pop singer names can't be recognized by Alexa, but Cortana has no problem with them.  So I start using Cortana a lot more now just for this very reason.  I have a set of premium speakers connected to PC.  It works perfectly.  I can also switch to other Echo speakers connected to the same wifi network via the Spotify app. 
  • Playing Devil's Advocate, Google Assistant is probably better than both of them.
  • Have you all at WC considered doing an in-depth comparison on Cortana, Alexa, Google, Siri capabilities? That might be a popular debate
  • Not to mention Harman Kardon has a new speaker coming out like the Invoke with Alexa in it. 
  • I think so lowly of Cortana right now (breaks my heart) I bought my daughter an invoke to work as a BT speaker. She uses it in the bathroom while she showers...this is how little I believe in Cortana's future.
  • Harmon Kardon is owned by Samsung now, so with Samsung having Bixby, how long will Cortana even have a speaker of her own?
  • There will be others like the one Xiaomi will release soon.  It will support both Cortana and Alexa at a cost of $30.
  • My Echo Dot is connected, via Bluetooth, to my Bose 5.1 home theater system. Sounds better than the Harmon Kardon, but it doesn't work with Cortana.
  • To me it feels like Cortana is a sinking ship now too. Alexa is so far ahead and only Google Home will catch it now. Cortana and Apple with their Home Pod will be left way way behind. I deleted Cortana off my Android phone only today because J just don't see the point in it when theirs better alternatives already baked in. I still have her on my PC, Surface Pro and Xbox One though. There is rumour of Cortana being integrated into Microsoft Launcher which I use so we'll see if that bears any fruit
  • this looks really bad for MS. why would any other company build a cortana device now with these rumors up in the air, or in general why would any other company or developer (let alone consumers) trust them after all that happened during the last months/years. really good job, MS
  • oh, and really 'before it's too late' for cortana?? little late for that question
  • I used Cortana on the first day I installed W10 and I haven't used it since. Maybe I'm not the target demographic though, as I have no interest in buying an assistant spyware device into my home.
  • At first, when I heard of the spyware stuff back when Windows 10 shipped, I didn't liked it. I turned all that stuff off and used only the basic. Then I realize that the spyware stuff does not compromise my information like passwords and bank accounts. They just want info about me. I turned everything back on... I don't care if these companies know me or not. They just want to target adds to me which I will block anyway. I don't have anything to hide and it is not like you can stop the government when it was spying high officers on other countries. Who am I in comparison? lol. So far, I had no problems at all.
  • It's already too late. Now it's Amazon VS Google, that's it.
  • Sad.. Why doesn't Microsoft ever follow through?
  • I think in the past they could dangle the carrot in front of partners and there would be a rush to fill in the painting, now not so much.  They need to learn to just do it and quit waiting on someone to finish the picture for them.  Maybe a coupe wins would turn things around but for now they are stuck rowing their own boat but they forgot to bring enough paddles. 
  • This is so true. In the 90's, that's how things worked for them, but there are lots of options and alternatives for their partners today who happily now go to the opposition instead. MS need to wake up, understand times have changed and develop and build for themselves. If they continue to wait for others to complete their dreams' as they have over the last decade they are dead moving forward. Time to take the lead, set the bar, if the partners want to join in great, if not move on, develop and promote your own products. The days of waiting for others to finish the dream are over, move on or die, simple.
  • because MS is ran by an idiot.
  • I actually use Cortana a lot on my pc. From sending texts to setting reminders. Find her really useful for quick things.
  • The bad thing is, the best experience with Cortana is still on my Windows Phone. Despite my PC being far being more powerful, Cortana on PC still doesn't seem to do as much as on my WP. Too bad I don't use my WP any more. My Invoke is a decent speaker but Cortana does even less than on PC. On the plus side, my Invoke responds far more quickly than Cortana on PC.  It is sad, when I got Cortana on WP 8 it was far better in most aspects than Siri on my wifes iphone or Google on my son's Galaxy Note. Today the others have caught up and Cortana seems to have actually moved backwards. Of course if not in capabilities, than certainly in penetration, Alexa is killing all of them. AMazon is predicted to sell 25 million of them in 2018.
  • You must be in the US, here in Aus she is a paper weight - as useless as t i t s on a bull.
  • "Microsoft says it's still committed to Cortana".....I'm sure I've heard this before
  • exactly. feels like they put out their still-committed on a weekly basis lately. But yeah, this will be totally different for the great Surface Phone / Windows 10 S 
  • The second you hear it the death clock starts ticking.  
  • Yup, that  phrase has become synonymous with, "Our board of directors is not consumer focused, so kill it with apathy."
  • It is true that every time MS 'focus' on something and 'commit' to something or 'will fully support' something we all know that means Ol' Nads is hankering for a retrenching. That's why it's so disappointing to hear about their renewed commitment to gaming and Xbox. Everyone knows what that means now, and it meets a wall of sighs.
  • Sad really, only used cortana to read out text over Bluetooth in the car when forced to on Windows 10, on 8 didn't need to.
    When the sync works across devices works so after reading and dismissing a notification it doesn't appear on another device I might try it again,
    Also doesn't work as well as Google in my opinion
  • If you want an excellent microphone array interface to Cortana, the Harman Kardon Invoke is an great choice.  I use it everyday.  I am surprised as to how well it can hear me and I am always learning new things to say to it.  Controls my Insteon lights, etc.
  • It's an awful choice, because needing to move to the US to buy it and get any useful on going functionality is a costly premium.
  • Bad choice. Cortana is likely to be killed off.
  • As stated, actions speak louder than words. Ship has sailed, now all the talk is of Alexa and Google Assistant being integrated practically everywhere. Microsoft will have a few announcements but real world applications will be minimal and ultimately fade into oblivion, just like so many other Microsoft products. They haven't yet learned that half hearted efforts don't cut it with agile competitors like Amazon and google around.
  • Excellent read, well done sir. It was just about time someone spoke out about this.
    We've been throught all of this l'm afraid. Listening to good ol "we are committed to xyz" while seeing no meaningful updates and then after some time they simply announce "well, we cannot differentiate xyz on the market so we're dumping it out".
    I'm already on android, so my ms phone story is over. For the truth to be told, google assistant can pretty much decimate cortana. But i still use windows pc and your last paragraph really nailed it - we're having less and less reason to stay.
  • Kind of like promoting Groove with 3 months free service, etc. and all the while knowing it will be shut down. What they say and what they are doing behind the curtain are not always the same thing. I really wanted the H/K speaker but when I read you cannot even stream your own uploaded music on OneDrive through Groove (other than BT from your phone) I decided to go to another ecosystem. I've got a drawer full of MS devices that were abandoned. Decided not to add any to that.
  • Um... are these articles just the old Windows Phone article but replace "Windows Phone" with Cortana? /sarcasm But this just feels like Windows Phone all over again. Something with so much potential, and Microsoft just giving us half-assed answers that they're serious, they're working on it, and then it's just gone.
  • Yep, soon Windows will only be available with an enterprise licence I expect. If we hear MS say they are completely committed to Windows soon I will not exactly be shocked.
  • Great article. Equal parts critical and insightful, but just overall an honest look. Refreshingly, not a fluff piece.
  • The author of this article read my mind exactly and put words to it. I agree with him entirely.
  • Not being a troll. I think it's already too late... ...because, as you said in the article, if they were serious about Cortana she'd be available in more countries by now. She'd be promoed like crazy. Microsoft would be comparing her to the competition and showing off all of her capabilities.  She would be installed on every little Internet of Things coming out today because of how robust and capable she is. Unfortunately, she is not and it shows. That's just how it goes.
  • I agree with every word you wrote. MS has become a clueless organization missing every sense of direction and urgency. They are the famous paralyzed rabbit looking into the headlight of a car waiting to be run over.
  • microsoft only serious about selling their desktop os to enterprises,actually microsoft needs a better leader if they want to stay windows in this planet.
  • Jez, I agree with every word.
  • This is a great article and Jez made a lot of good points.  We all know Microsoft has showcased great new products only to let them die as they continue to disenfranchise their diminishing consumer base.  While that narrative fits very well into th Cortana discussion, the part that intrigued me the most was the part about Alexa on PC. If Microsoft does'nt have consumer products and if Microsoft does'nt have a way for those products, if they existed, to be connected, then in a wholly connected future, I really don't see any place for Microsoft to exist. Consumers will migrate to other operating systems that offer easy and full featured connectivity.  Small businesses will follow because that's the tech their workforce knows.  Enterprise will loose interest with Microsoft if AI isn't available across an entire technical ecosystem. If this happens, Microsoft may eventually migrate from being a Tech leader to a third party supplier.  Please, Microsoft, get your sh*t together.
  • Uh, it is already too little and too late for Cortana.  Too little and too late seems be be a common theme for Microsoft.  Cortana is dead.
  • I'd still do her.  
  • A couple of reasons that Cortana is different than some other consumer products like mobile and Groove music pass: 1. It's basically just a front-end to Bing. It would cost them to make Cortana better, but isn't really costing them anything to keep Cortana at its current level since they have to keep all that back-end anyway. Groove cost them a lot in license fees, so that's why that had to go. I don't think Cortana will straight-up die. More likely it will just stagnate. 2. Cortana is not just consumer. Microsoft could really leverage their dominance in business tech (Office, Dynamics, Azure) and turn Cortana into a business assistant. They do some stuff like this already, e.g. reading your Office email and seeing that there's reference to a meeting, so it offers to make you a calendar entry. That direction with a lot more of it would be fantastic. Maybe we reach a point where you use Cortana for work and then Alexa/Google for home. That's probably not a bad scenario for Microsoft. It's also the direction their mobile efforts seem to be going - you would use Andromeda as an extra unique business tool alongside your Android/iOS. But then seeing them kill the Dynamics connector definitely confuses that option which I otherwise would have thought was likely. I have to think they're doing something more advanced with Dynamics; why else would they kill a connector that would be relatively easy to maintain to a product that they also control?
  • The problem seems to be that the enterprise largely disables Cortana I their deployment.
  • Sounds logical and this is my thought as well. This is in alignment with the proposed Cortana - Alexa partnership. As Alexa is a market leader now and Cortana has not penetrated to the enterprise (most of the organizations are disabling Cortana) the challenges for Cortana are, Alexa is eyeing on the enterprise market (Alexa for business).  Car Manufactures along with other companies are ready to develop the Alexa skills  OEMs like Asus, HP, Lenovo are enabling Alexa on their devices (currently on ARM PCs) Enterprises may not see Cortana's strengths (Office, D365, PowerBI Integration ...etc.) as a game changer as they have opened up access to e-Mails and Apps over the phone Cortana - Alexa friendship hasn't happened yet and not sure Alexa is really interested in that considering that Cortana is not a friend of any enterprise yet BTW, MS confirmed that they are working on a new connector for D365. If MS is able to convince enterprises about the Andromeda device and Cortana's use in it to improve productivity on the move by leaps and bounds, Cortana stands a chance. Let's be hopeful !
  • Yes, it costs to keep software up-to-date and enable it for lots of countries. The alternative is to become irrelevant. Why bother to develop Cortana in the first place if you're not going to move it forward? So while it doesn't cost them any cash to keep Cortana at its current level, not upping their game causes them to be bypassed in the marketplace. It will stagnate - so slow death.  Groove is a great example - they never got a family plan. Spotify did. Yup it's the cost of doing business. What was the cost of going the route of family plan v.s. going through the effort of building the Groove music service only to let it die. From the public's perspective, Cortana doesn't exist. It's never mentioned.