Why shouldn't the z coordinate be normalized to the [0,1] range instead of [-1,1]? As I understand it, that happens some time after anyways, so what's the catch with this?
The question could very easily be turned around: why the [0, 1] range? What makes that range special?
NDC space is a cube; every component is on the [-1, 1] range. So it's very nice, neat, and uniform. That's why OpenGL uses that space. It's simple, obvious, and very regular.
What you suggest is to turn that nice, neat, uniform cube into a rectangular prism. There is nothing to gain from such a space. Why be irregular when you can be regular?
As I understand it, that happens some time after anyways
No, it does not. The transform from NDC space to window space uses the current
glDepthRange setting. That may be [0, 1], and that's what it is by default. But there's no rule that it must be. It can be anything you want, so long as both values are between 0 and 1. You can even reverse the near and far, using a range of [1, 0].
There's one massive advantage to NDC's Z being defined as [0,1] and it has to do with floating point precision.
Since about 2006, the standard advice from GPU vendors to avoid z-fighting has been to use a projection matrix that maps the far plane to z=0 and the near plane to z=1 and to use a floating point depth buffer.
Perspective projection results in a hyperbolic precision density that favours the near plane (which results in terrible precision beyond about near*2). Floating point formats have logarithmic precision density that favours 0. Combining these two facts with the above mentioned "backwards" projection matrix results in those two curves almost cancelling out, giving approximate linear precision density across the entire Z range, without sacrificing performance or interpolation quality (unlike some other linear/logarithmic depth buffer schemes).
Unfortunately this trick (which is now standard practice) does not work with OpenGL's "nice, symmetrical" NDC coordinate system -- you have to enable a GL extension to opt in to the NDC definition used by every other sane graphics API.